I don’t want to share my personal life with nosy coworkers

A reader writes:

I work for a small company on a project with a major client. Recently, I had a family member become sick and hospitalized. Because I knew that I would more than likely would be taking some time off, I was sure to talk to the client and my immediate supervisor in my company to let them know upfront that my family member was sick and I would be taking time off to help, just to give them a heads-up in case I had to shift responsibilities to someone else or needed to request additional telework days beyond the two per week I already had. I’m an intensely private person and while cordial with my coworkers, I’m not very comfortable talking extensively about my personal life outside of a few safe topics. When speaking to the client and with my immediate supervisor, I tried to keep things clear and to the point, with little additional detail.

While the client and others at the client site have been very respectful of my situation by giving me space and not prying further, the people in my small company have been continuously pushing me for more detail and constant updates. The company CEO is one of those types that believes the employees of his small business are a “family” and that everyone should be open about their lives – something that makes me extremely uncomfortable. I’ve had two coworkers, my immediate supervisor, and the company CEO pry about my family member’s health status and, on occasion, bother me about my health too since I have several chronic illnesses and had to take time off for a recent terrible stress-induced relapse. At first, I responded in short replies, then deflected the conversation. But a few of them have seemed offended that I do not want to discuss details with them. My immediate supervisor once asked me point blank what my family member’s diagnosis was and continued to prod me for the exact details of their situation, and it honestly threw me off-guard. I just couldn’t believe that someone would feel entitled to intimate details like that. I told him that that was private family information that I was uncomfortable discussing.

There’s an upcoming mandatory “team-building” event that I’m dreading because all of them will be there and will probably take this opportunity to pile it on and team up with showing me their “concern” over me and my family member’s health. How do I get them to back off? I’m already dealing with my own health and then on top of that, helping my family member with their medical problems, not to mention trying to keep up in my full-time job, which has been a big challenge. I also don’t want to be coarsely blunt – which has happened with past relapses of my chronic illnesses when I’m high on pain and low in patience – but I also want to get them to stop.

Also note, said company also does not have an actual HR department, as the CEO chooses to wear multiple hats, including HR Director.

Ah, employers who claim they’re like families! It’s nearly always a sign of dysfunction. Workplaces aren’t families, and managers who frame things that way often violate employees’ boundaries, just as yours is doing. (Interestingly, “we’re like family here” tends only to work to the employer’s benefit — like you’ll be guilt-tripped if you push back against long hours or unreasonable demands, because “family,” but somehow you’ll be an employee again when it comes to your request for a flexible schedule or a raise.)

And really, you might not even want to share everything in your life with your actual family. You definitely don’t need to do it with colleagues.

But it can get weird and uncomfortable when everyone else in your office is a sharer and you’re not, and when there’s pressure to conform to a sharing culture. You can preserve your privacy and boundaries, but it takes some finesse to avoid seeming like you’re being cold or standoffish.

When people attempt to butt into your personal life and you’d rather not talk about it, there are a few ways you can respond. First, there’s the polite deflection. For example, in response to a demand for information about your relative’s medical condition, you could say: “Oh, my mom is hanging in there, thanks for asking. Actually, I wanted to ask you about the plans for the product launch … ” Or: “It’s pretty complicated — I don’t want to get into the details, but she’s getting good care. Hey, while I’ve got you, can we go over talking points for Friday’s presentation?”

But it sounds like you’ve tried this approach and people felt slighted that you weren’t opening up more. So for people who don’t accept polite deflections, try saying more explicitly that you don’t want to discuss it. This can feel tricky, since you need to maintain good relationships with colleagues — and especially with your boss — but there’s a way to do this diplomatically and without just yelling “back off!”, tempting as that might be. Such as:

1. “I really appreciate that you’re concerned, but I’m trying not to talk about it at work. It’s a nice break to just be able to focus on work when I’m here!”

2. “Do you mind if we don’t discuss it? It’s a big stressor for me right now, and I’m trying to keep my mind off it. How are you doing?”

3. “I’m doing okay. I don’t want to talk about it too much, but I’ll let you know if there’s ever something going on that will impact work.
Thanks for understanding.”

Pick whichever of these responses feel most natural to you and store it away. If you have it on hand and ready to go when needed, you’ll be less likely to snap at someone nosy when you’re low on patience.

If these techniques don’t work — and they should, but who knows, you might be up against really determined priers — you also have the option to talk privately with your boss and say something like this: “I’m getting the sense that you’d like me to share more information with you about what’s going on with my relative and with my own health situation. I really do appreciate the concern, and I know it comes from a place of caring. But I tend to be pretty private and usually prefer not to talk about it much at work. I wanted to mention it because I don’t want you to take it personally or think I’m being standoffish.”

And in fact, if you think you’ll end up needing to have that conversation eventually, you might as well do it before your upcoming team-building event, to ward off some of the pressure to share, which you’re anticipating will happen there.

It might also help to keep in mind that your colleagues are probably coming from a place of concern — nosy concern, yes, but concern and goodwill nonetheless. They should be more attuned to your cues, and they shouldn’t push when you make it clear that you don’t want to share, but sometimes being able to categorize co-workers as “annoying but not malicious” can make them easier to deal with.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 199 comments… read them below }

    1. EA*


      Sharing people often don’t understand non-sharing people. My old boss probably penalized me for not taking to her about my personal life. She was crazy nosy and gossipy, and the people who played along seemed to get more opportunity. Maybe there was another reason, maybe not. Not saying this will happen to OP, just something to keep in mind.

        1. Alpha Bravo*

          My late husband didn’t really understand his non-sharing wife either. But he understood I loved him.

        2. whingedrinking*

          My brother and I somehow both wound up as “I’ll call you if it’s important or interesting” kinds of people; our mother is a “just called to say hi” type, which leads to frustration. She’s also said, “Well, you can email or text me if you don’t like to talk on the phone,” but if anything that’s worse – I literally cannot write something without a purpose. (“There was a giant snowstorm in my city and I got into grad school” – yes. “It’s raining a little and I had a tasty smoothie today” – no.) So now I try to reframe weekly phone calls to my mom as serving the purpose “ask mom how she is to make her happy”.

          1. Candi*

            You could reframe the texts and emails that way too.

            Purpose: Write mom so she feels I’m communicating, which will make her happy.

            Subject: One event involving a friend, a pet, or that nutty driver who did NOT look before pulling out. Stuff like that.

          2. Koko*

            My mom is a talker and I’m not really. I don’t mind talking to her but making phone calls is just never something that will enter my mind naturally. When she wants to talk she’ll text or email me asking me to call sometime in the next day or two whenever it’s convenient for me. It prompts me to make the call without putting any burden on me to remember to call her regularly and lets me do it at my convenience. I really appreciate that she doesn’t try to turn it into some, “If you really cared you would be able to remember to call,” thing where I have to fight my inherent nature to prove something. She understands that it’s not about how much I care, it’s just not how my brain works.

      1. Snark*

        And, it bears mention, non-sharing isn’t superior to sharing, much as introversion isn’t a better way to be than extroversion. “Nosy and gossipy” for a non-sharer is “compassionate and interested in your life” to a sharer. The problem is not necessarily that OP’s coworkers are comfortable with a level of sharing and questioning that OP is not, the problem is that they don’t honor boundaries once established. It doesn’t really matter if they understand why you’d prefer not to get deeply into personal issues, it just matters that they don’t give you the gears anyway when you tell then how much you’re comfortable sharing.

        1. MK*

          I agree. It sounds to me as if the OP is a very bad “culture fit” for this workplace and that this is a fundamental problem that will not go away, even if she gets them to back off in this particular instance.

          1. EA*

            This is what I was trying to say. It seems like sharing is central to their culture (or at least the CEO), and they haven’t responded to the OPs pretty clear communication. The issue will pop up again in another way, and I worry could hurt the OP in this environment.

        2. RVA Cat*

          That is very well said. It’s about respect.

          (Also – if you’re running a small company that you see as a “family”, you are not a CEO, you’re an owner.)

        3. PlainJane*

          Well said. As a manager, I err on the side of staying out of my employees’ personal business, but I’ve had employees who are offended by that, because they interpret my respectful distance as not caring. But yeah, once a boundary is established, it needs to be respected.

          1. MassMatt*

            I think it’s important as a manager to let the employee going through some sort of turmoil know she can share as much or as little as she is comfortable with regarding her personal issue and you will listen, respect their confidence, and provide support as possible. Don’t just assume they know they can talk to you or that they would prefer not to, as it can be interpreted as being aloof or distant. I managed employees going through divorce, personal bankruptcy, serious illnesses, and death of spouses/loved ones. It wasn’t fun but I felt like it was some of the most important work I did as a manager.

            1. Safetykats*

              I’m going to take issue with this. If you have the time, expertise, and inclination as a manager to do this, that’s lovely. I not only don’t have time, I don’t have the expertise – and I feel like being that wrapped up in an employee’s personal life is likely detrimental to my ability to manage their work in the short and long term. In our company, we have an employee assistance program. If somebody needs that kind of support, that’s where they go. I can recommend the program, or if necessary I can formally refer someone. I actually think that’s better for all of us. For me, because I can concentrate on my actual job; for the rest of my people because they (and their worn) get the attention they deserve even if a coworker is having issues; and for the actual employee with issues. Because they get professional help from someone who knows how to appropriately counsel them, and because I think they must feel more able to open up to someone they are not going to continue to have to see every day after their problems are resolved.

              That’s not to say that I don’t try to be empathetic and understanding. Just that we have professional therapists and counselors on staff, and I think there’s a clear line between their jobs and mine. (FYI, apparently they are a good group of people. I’ve heard nothing but good things from everyone I know who has used the program.)

              1. Detective Amy Santiago*

                I think you mis-read MassMatt’s comment.

                He wasn’t saying that he personally navigated the employees through those difficulties, simply that he’s managed employees going through them and provided whatever level of support they each needed.

              2. Kate 2*

                I think you are right. I wouldn’t invite employees to share their problems with me, and managers shouldn’t feel they have to. If you want to, that’s fine. You can also show your caring by being helpful and giving some leeway with work.

              3. Hey Nonnie*

                This is admittedly a tangent, but can someone explain EAPs to me? I’ve never worked for a place that had one — at least not one that I was allowed to access, contractors forever being the red-headed step-child of employees. But I would find it rather… alarming to be expected to share really personal details with a program that is directly affiliated with my employer. I’ve had statements as vague as “I have some personal stuff going on” used as an excuse to fire me (and attempted and failed to use it to deny me unemployment benefits); so giving them actual specific details sounds like financial suicide. It’s ammunition that can be used against you later.

                (This is obviously why I’m not a “sharer” at work.)

                1. Detective Amy Santiago*

                  EAPs are independent and though they are provided through your employer, they should not be reporting the details of your private situations. Basically, they are referrals for various services: mental health, legal, etc.

                2. Hey Nonnie*

                  “Should not,” sure, but the org controlling their purse strings is going to have more influence than Sally Employee who doesn’t directly pay for anything. He who signs the paychecks is the boss, and the vendor is going to be aware of that… make the boss mad and they risk losing that service contract and all that money. Aside from actual violations of HIPAA, is there anything actually standing in the way of an organization demanding a report of who accesses the EAP and when, how often, and for what? Or are employees having to rely on the employer and the vendor pinky-swearing that that’s not how it works?

                3. No Green No Haze*

                  Having just used one for the first time, I can share my experience.

                  I’m having a cluster of emotional and physical symptoms that may be connected to each other, and disentangling them is something better left to professionals; so while I’m going to my regular doctor to tackle the physical stuff, I’ve been building the energy to try to get a brain wrangler for the emotional ones. The hubs reminded me his workplace EAP extends to spouses — one of literally two practical spouse benefits his non-profit has — and forwarded me the work email that had been sent to staff about how to access.

                  I called the number, made an appointment, filled out the appropriate workplace codes, went in, and am up to visit #3 (of 5 free, but she’s not planning on counting, she says) with a nice but probably too-nice-for-me therapist. HIPAA compliant as with any doctor: I specified with whom medical information could be shared and methods by which that was allowable. I’ve also picked up a referral to a different sort of therapist, who thank God is in-network for my own health insurer, so that’s promising.

                  The company is independent of the non-profit the hubs works for. There is no reason tos suspect they would breach my confidentiality.

                4. Cassie*

                  I’m not a sharer at work either, but I have accessed my employer’s EAP and found it very helpful. In my case, I accessed online counselling for over six months while dealing with bereavement and anxiety issues.

                  The EAP is completely confidential, is very clear up front about what information they gather/store and why, and they will not share your information with anyone except in very limited situations (for example, if you disclose something that is a threat to someone’s safety or wellbeing, or if there is a statutory obligation (e.g. under terrorism legislation should you disclose something relevant). All of this information is clearly presented on their website, and is reaffirmed when you make contact.

                  In my case, they did end up contact my doctor with my permission, and helped me communicate with my doctor to get prescribed medication for my anxiety, as well as providing weekly therapy.

                  I am absolutely confident that my EAP is confidential, and felt very safe sharing my situation with them. However, what you share is entirely up to you – you are certainly not expected to share “really personal details” if you do not want to! Contacting the EAP is your choice, what you share with them is your choice, and you can choose to withdraw contact at any point if you feel uncomfortable. My EAP did not even require my name or any individually identifying information in order to offer help and support.

            2. Else*

              I don’t think that works – managers shouldn’t have to be and don’t have the skills to be counselors. Let them know that you value them and will work with them regarding how it affects their work, yes, but do not offer to be a sounding board or give them an opening to spread their distress all through the office. That’s what their friends or family or religious figures or counselors are for, not their office.

            3. Former Employee*

              The problem is that this involves the manager in the employee’s life in a way that can cause favoritism. If the manager knows that “poor Jane” is going through X, then they may let things slide for her, while holding the line on other employees. The thing is that other employees may be going through their own version of X, if not a more serious Y or even a horrible Z, but they aren’t sharing their situations with the manager. The result is that the manager cuts hangnail Jane some slack while being tough on arthritis Mary and fibromyalgia Wakeen.

              1. Cactus*

                Yep. Having worked in a highly dysfunctional workplace before (where my manager and one of my co-workers were best friends and everybody was constantly sniping, back-biting, etc), I saw this play out all the times. The “best friend” had some legitimate problems (many of which could have been fixed if our workplace had just paid everyone better across the board, but THAT was never going to happen), and constantly was given sympathy, support, second chances, etc. Other co-workers had (known) similar problems…and if they weren’t my boss’ favorite, she just talked shit about them. The biggest lesson I learned there was to never trust people with my personal woes.

        4. Scarlet*

          Agree, but I have to point out that in a work context, oversharing can quickly become problematic, whether it’s in your nature or not.
          There’s a reason a lot of us like to draw a line between our professional and private lives, whether we’re introverted or not.

      2. Hello...ello...ello..ello..llo..llo..lo*

        I’d almost blocked this out of memory. I had a boss who said I wasn’t friendly because I didn’t share a lot about my personal life nor did I share the details of my wedding planning. I think I mumbled something about most bosses would be happy that I hadn’t gone off the deep end sharing my wedding plans and that it probably would have been rude to share the planning details with people who wouldn’t be invited.

        What I really wanted to say was… are you kidding me?! You have the personality of a turnip, my coworkers are bitchy and back stabby, and my newly inherited staff need to concentrate on learning their jobs that my predecessor had been doing for them.. and you want me to share my personal life?! Are you out of your mind!

        1. Natalie*

          And here I thought it was polite to not bore other people to tears with wedding planning! What an odd complaint on your boss’s part.

        2. Steve*

          It sounds to me like your boss wanted you to be friendly with your coworkers. It also sounds like you did not like or respect them. Could it be the problem wasn’t you didn’t share personal info, but more you didn’t like the people you worked with and that was apparent?

        3. Julia the Survivor*

          I don’t agree with Steve at all! It sounds like Hello’s boss was disrespectful and way too personal.

      3. DrAtos*

        I’m a bit in between. I don’t mind sharing some things, but there are things that I feel should be off limits because of nosy and gossipy people in the office. The reality of life in general, but especially in a workplace setting, is that there are many people you really should not trust with private information. Most of them will never be your friends and they are not your family. They are people you have been forced to work with for a source of income. There are things I have shared with my co-workers and immediately regret it because some of them socialize outside of work, and I know that my business will be brought up when I’m not around. I think it’s very smart not to trust people at work. That is not to say they are bad people, but unless you develop a close friendship and bond with some of them, they should not be privy to what is happening in your life outside of the office. However, I have told my friend who is super private that sometime you have to play the game in order to not alienate yourself. That means giving up some information, enough to keep the gossips at bay, but to note that there are certain things that should never be shared. Sometimes that is hard, but I’ve gotten good at divulging certain things (I love doing Airbnb; I will visit some friends in xx country next year – I can’t wait!; I traveled to xx town for a weekend getaway – I highly recommend it) in order to maintain office camaraderie.

        1. Cactus*

          I agree with you. I will talk about food or books/TV/movies (of the non-political variety) with almost anyone. Most other things about my life are private, because yeah, most people are not friends.

      1. Snark*

        They’re like sweat bees. They’re friendly little things and not easily roused to anger and stinging. But they want to drink your sweat, and they will not be dissuaded from being ALL the way up in your business.

        1. Safetykats*

          Years ago I had a coworker tell me “We’ve all been here so long we have no lives, and so we have no choice but to try to suck the life out of you.”

  1. jm*

    FWIW, OP, I think your stance is perfectly appropriate, especially since you are assisting someone else with their illness. I’ve received health assistance from a family member before, and I would have been really upset if their office mates knew all the details of my illness.

    1. Rachel01*

      I had to take time off from work for my mother for surgery one day. My boss got pushy about what type of surgery and I informed her that my mother does not like me sharing her medical appointments at work. Made her mad, but oh well.

      Just inform your coworkers that your family wishes their situation be shared, that they consider it a private matter. If they push back, you have the freedom to be rude when stating you are not discussing it.

      My boss does the same thing, we are like family but that comes up when she’s wanting to use people.

        1. I Didn’t Kill Kenny*

          I was just going to post this.

          Tell them exactly that, “my relative really doesn’t like her situation to be discussed. I’m on the private side myself, so I understand. She’s doing well, so I thank you and appreciate your undestanding”

          If some clod still persists, unleash the hounds!

      1. Ciemme*

        I live in a large city where people don’t know each other and my family all live in other states or countries, so I generally will respond to nosy people with gross oversharing to make them regret it, but that may not work for people with well-known families in small towns.

    2. NDC*

      Yes! I’m fond of the phrase “It’s not my story to tell.” Pad with social niceties as preferred.

    3. Anne (with an "e")*

      I agree that the OP’s stance is appropriate. My mother always told me not to ask people personal questions. I was taught that if someone wanted you to know something, they would let you know. Never, never, never ask for details about illnesses. Personally, I just wish people my best or say something equally generic. What is wrong with people? (Other topics you shoul never ask about include, but are not limited to : politics, religion, and finances).

  2. Temperance*

    LW, I’m understanding that you’re intensely private, but I’m wondering if you’re giving enough information to your supervisor and colleagues. I’m not saying that you have to give all of the details, but I think it would be helpful if instead of “a relative is in the hospital and I am going to need to provide care to him/her”, you said something like, “my mother was hospitalized recently, and I’m anticipating that I’ll need to take X time off to provide care for her when she’s discharged.” It doesn’t disclose the person’s diagnosis, but tells the company that you’re providing care for a close relative and gives them reasonable expectations so they can reassign duties.

    1. DumbQuestion*

      I don’t like the idea that it has to be a close (DNA proximity) relative to “count” as good enough to take time off for. If I’m taking time off to help someone with a recovery…we’re close enough and people really need to mind their damned business.

      I wouldn’t take 10 seconds to take a call on my cell from my only living parent and it annoys me that people would give him precedence in my life over the people a bit further down the DNA strand I actually care about.

      1. DecorativeCacti*

        Depending on the workplace, how you are related does matter. The state laws where I work define who is qualified to count when I take sick leave to care for them. Our company policies widen the net a little and have a clause saying they will allow it to go beyond the defined scope in “unusual circumstances”. But if an employee is using sick leave, the employer could be entitled to know at least who you are caring for. If vacation is being used, then that’s irrelevant.

      2. DM*

        I agree in principal, but in reality, the law (in the U.S.) does include protections for leaves based on certain family relationships (for example, companies over a certain size are subject to FMLA and that has a list of relatives that “qualify”). So, a U.S. company legally doesn’t have to allow someone to take a leave of absence or time off to care for a cousin or a friend. In that case, the relationship does matter if the company is trying to determine whether FMLA/CFRA counts (but in that case, they would just give her the form to fill out and have the health care provider fill out the relevant portion).

      3. Tuxedo Cat*

        This is a fair point. Tangentially related, I felt like there was a difference in perspective before I was married even though I had been with the same person for years.

    2. Pollygrammer*

      I don’t think it’s clear from the letter whether the LW has disclosed which family member she’s taking care of or not. If not, I do think identifying the relationship is okay, though coworkers really have no right to any other details.

      1. I Didn’t Kill Kenny*

        She owes them no explanation. Zero . Zip. Nada.

        She told her boss she’d be out and why. If She needs to get coverage, she still doesn’t owe them details.

        1. anon for this one*

          Well, as others pointed out above, sometimes you *have* to at least give your relationship to the other person. Legally, I can use my sick leave to care for certain relatives, but I must specify which relative it is.

            1. Genevieve Shockley*

              And the boss should be aware not to disclose private information with anyone NOT in the chain of command.

              There has to be a way to say, without any snark, that information covered by Hippa, will not be disclosed to anyone not on the medical team.

              (Another Genevieve)

    3. NDC*

      I agree that you should tell your manager as much as they need to authorise and manage your absences (when and for how long, and maybe who is sick if that affects the type of leave you can use). But your colleagues don’t need to know who’s sick, what with, and what treatment they are getting, etc, etc.

    4. Scarlet*

      They’re actually asking for a diagnosis and medical information, which goes way beyond what would be necessary or, in most cases, appropriate to discuss at work.

    1. Rachel01*

      No life outside work? in rare cases, they want to know how serious it is, if they have grounds to push back on the extra work they are getting in one’s absence? Sometimes they do care, but have a boundary issue.

      Since OP’s boss considers it “a family” there are boundary issues in place anyway.

    2. fposte*

      Sometimes it’s just a culture, and it’s one that people can actually enjoy; it’s only a problem when they don’t permit other people to enjoy something else.

      1. zora*

        Yes, this. Our workplace errs a little on the ‘oversharing’ side, there have been some all staff emails with kind of a lot of detail about medical issues that i find a little much for me.

        BUT ALSO, if someone is vague or doesn’t share details, IT IS OKAY. No one is pumped for information, or made to feel like they have to go into detail to get time off or other support. I personally was just able to say “I’m having some health issues, and will be out for extra appointments” and no one asked me for more information ever! I just got some “I hope everything is okay!” and that was it.

        It is possible to have that culture and yet still be respectful of different employees having different boundaries.

        1. fposte*

          Yes, ours is very shary, but then somebody was out on leave last year without giving details and people were okay with that too.

      2. Julia the Survivor*

        IMHO people who push and don’t respect boundaries are not being caring, they’re being controlling.

    3. Elizabeth West*

      I don’t know. I’ve been an oversharer in the past (working on that) but I’ve never made sharing back a condition of any workplace relations. If someone does choose to share with me, I make it a point not to spread it around. I don’t want the sweat bees (thank you Snark, for that apt comparison, haha) hovering around me for intel.

    4. YarnOwl*

      CW: Suicide

      Last year the teenage son of one of my coworkers killed himself, and people were gossiping and being so nosy about it, I couldn’t believe it. She handled it so well and was really open in talking about it, but I just couldn’t believe that people would let their nosiness and need to know what was going on overpower any feelings of compassion they had for her. I lost respect for a few of my coworkers who handled it so inappropriately I just couldn’t believe it.

  3. CleverGirl*

    To add to what Alison said about it coming from a place of concern, it might also help to remember that there are some people who WANT to be asked about things like that by bosses and coworkers, and would feel offended if people didn’t. I can see someone writing in a letter about how they had a very sick family member and they had to request time off to care for them, and their boss DIDN’T EVEN BOTHER TO ASK HOW THE FAMILY MEMBER WAS DOING! (In fact, wasn’t there a letter recently similar to that? Written by someone who gave birth and was upset that the boss didn’t ask how she was doing? I have some vague memory of this but I’m probably getting the details wrong.)

    It’s totally okay to be a private person but also important to remember that no everyone feels the same way as you do, and if your coworkers treated everyone the way you wish to be treated, there would be people on the other end of the spectrum who would be upset.

    1. all aboard the anon train*

      But those people who WANT to be treated like that are being disrespectful to the OP by badgering her for updates. Sure, they have every right to want to be treated in a different way if they were in the same situation, but they don’t get to push that need or want onto the OP. That’s just inconsiderate.

      1. Stormy*

        Agreed. We teach little kids “treat others how you want to be treated” because learning empathy takes time and emotional growth. The adult version is “treat others how THEY want to be treated”.

        1. MerciMe*

          I have found the question “May I enquire, if you are comfortable sharing?” and its closely-related cousins to be incredibly useful in navigating these types of boundary variations.

    2. Rachel01*

      I agree with you. I get upset if not asked when I was out with surgery, etc. I’ll never forget driving to the hospital one day from work thinking I was having a heart attack. Turned out I was having a gas attack, I have a ha-ital hernia. My boss didn’t ask how I was when I came back in the next day and didn’t volunteer to a single person that I had left. Two of my coworkers got upset that I didn’t ask them to drive me. I didn’t even think about it (my boss hits people up for rides because she doesn’t want to pay for gas).

    3. Amber O.*

      “It’s totally okay to be a private person but also important to remember that no everyone feels the same way as you do, and if your coworkers treated everyone the way you wish to be treated, there would be people on the other end of the spectrum who would be upset.”

      This is an important part of it, I think. I work in a group that is very open and understanding for coworkers with problems- we often send out cards, buy condolence gifts, and make “in memory of” donations for coworkers experiencing loss. Fun story time- my mother and I work in the same department of a large company (It’s weird, I know. I actually work for her OLD boss). We work for different groups, don’t interact, and have completely different reporting structures even though we work 50 feet apart. She is an Extremely Private Person and I’m an open book. My grandmother (her mom) came down with some serious health problems about two years ago, and spent several months in the ICU before passing. My mother never spoke a word to anyone besides her immediate supervisor- not even her direct reports. When things got bad and we had to drop everything to fly across the country before my grandmother passed, I told my director everything. She was shocked, and immediately made arrangements to cover my duties while I was out and offered to assist with my mother’s direct reports so she could focus on being with her mom during her final days. Her understanding was really helpful for both of us, but she thanked me for my transparency- by knowing the situation better, she didn’t feel left in the dark and helped to avoid any issues (such as people demanding work from either of us while we were grieving) in the department as a whole.

    4. Not a Real Giraffe*

      Well, sure, but OP has made it clear s/he is not interested in discussing the topic:

      I told him that that was private family information that I was uncomfortable discussing.

      Continuing to ask after this is blatantly disregarding the OP’s wishes.

      1. Pollygrammer*

        I wonder if reframing the same response in a slightly more emotional way (without giving any actual detail) would help. Something like “talking about this really makes things harder.” It opens her to a little more sympathy, but maybe a little less prying.

      2. I Didn’t Kill Kenny*

        Asking can be a sign of concern and care. If you keep prodding after being told the person doesn’t want to elaborate, it’s nosy prodding, pure and simple

    5. Jennifer Thneed*

      Saying, “Hey, how’s your mom doing” is a very very different thing from demanding to know the diagnosis and other potentially gory details.

      1. Alton*

        Exactly. You can express concern without pressing for a lot of details or asking very personal questions. Some people don’t have good judgment about what type of questions are appropriate, and I think that’s a slightly different issue than just being a sharer or not. I’m often okay with talking about myself, but when it comes to questions that are *rude* or especially invasive, I feel it’s more a matter of principle. I don’t really want to encourage those people.

      2. Scarlet*

        THIS. Asking how someone is doing is absolutely fine. It’s probing for personal and medical information that’s way out of line.

    6. Minerva McGonagall*

      In an attempt to respect both groups, I try for something like this:

      “Hi Jane. I’m so sorry your mom was attacked by a giant squirrel. I hope her recovery is going as well as could be expected. Please let me know if you need me to help with while you’re helping your mom.”

      Briefly express compassion about the situation, and then quickly move on to the work. If they want to talk about it, they’ve got an opening. If they don’t, they can respond to the question about the impact on their work, and if they do that, I don’t bring it up again.

    7. OP*

      I totally understand that some people are comfortable with sharing intimate details with others. I’ve witnessed said pushy coworkers discuss intimate details with other coworkers. The problem here, however, is that I’ve been very clear about *my* boundaries and while some of my colleagues have (finally) backed off, others continue to persist. It’s the fact that they’re clearly violating my boundaries over and over again, increasing my stress levels, and making things worse for me overall.

      I listen and humor my colleagues and have my “safe” topics. But I do not wish to divulge all the intimate details of my relative’s illness or my illnesses. I feel like just as I can be the active listener to their over-sharing, I’d like the to do the same kindness of heeding my boundaries.

        1. The Supreme Troll*

          Seriously, this is really a good statement to use in a situation like this: polite but effective. In truth, some coworkers will take it at face value, and some might not believe it. But even if they don’t believe it (thinking it’s a white lie), a caring, mature person will not keep trying to dig into this further.

      1. Lady Bug*

        I’m sorry your coworkers are not respecting your boundaries. I’m impressed with your restraint, they would have received a “None of your f*cking business” plus death stare from me a long time ago.

        Maybe you should try exactly what you said above. “I appreciate your concern. The best way to help would be to extend me the kindness of respecting my privacy during this difficult time.”

      2. No Green No Haze*

        I wonder if this is one of those situations where literal repetition is key.

        They’re already breaching social etiquette by ignoring your refusals: I don’t think you need to feel you have to try another method or way of wording it to see if something lands. The weird awkwardness of their persistence would only be matched by the weird awkwardness of you repeating the same answer multiple times.

        “That is private family information that I prefer not to discuss.”
        [they ask again]
        “That is private family information that I prefer not to discuss.”
        [they ask again]
        “That is private family information that I prefer not to discuss.”
        [they ask again]
        “That is private family information that I prefer not to discuss.”

        Rude people use other people’s politeness to get their way. You owe them frustration and confoundment.

        “Why do you keep saying that?!”
        “It didn’t seem as if you’d heard me the first five times.”

      3. Gaming Teapot*

        @OP: In such cases, I always advocate for sheer, direct, matter-of-fact honesty and calling out in the calmest voice you can muster:

        “Janet, I understand you probably mean well, but I have told you several times that I don’t like discussing private matters at work and yet you continue asking me for details of my private life. It comes across as very rude and disrespectful and it’s putting me under additional stress, so would you kindly stop? Thank you.”

        And if Janet still doesn’t get it, give her one last warning:

        “Janet, we have had this discussion a hundred times before. I don’t want to discuss my private life at work. Please respect that or I will have to ask boss/CEO/HR to get involved.”

        And if even that giant red flag flying high in the sky doesn’t deter her, then follow through. Go to boss/CEO/HR and report their hostile behavior.

        If that doesn’t work, then look for a new job. Spending a few weeks stressing out looking for somewhere more respectful is better than living in dysfunction for years. Trust me.

      4. Julia the Survivor*

        People who keep pushing after you’ve set boundaries are not caring about you. They care only about their desire to know, for whatever inappropriate reason that is.
        If it was me I would want to call them out and escalate if they still disrespect me – but the times I’ve dealt with such people my job wasn’t at stake, and it sounds like your CEO would be in their camp. So you’ll need to determine how far you can go with calling them out and being straightforward, without endangering your job.

    8. Roja*

      Right. In the situation it’s obviously a boundary-ignoring thing, but I’ve gotten into the habit (as a sharing person) of asking what’s going on, and immediately following with, “there’s no need to share if you want to keep it private, but I’m asking because I don’t want you to feel ignored or like I don’t care enough to ask.” That usually does the trick.

  4. Anon for this*

    I have a similar problem, in that my boss does this to everyone, both for things our employees are personally going through and for things affecting their families. I think, if I could explain to him why this is inappropriate, he might stop. It’s definitely driven by natural curiosity, a love of gossip, and genuinely wanting to seem caring. Some members of our staff do appreciate his interest in their lives, but others don’t and he has shown no ability to differentiate between the two. Any advice on a way to explain why this is inappropriate for him to ask/keep asking about, rather than letting people share on their own time?

    1. Jennifer Thneed*

      It’s the power differential. He’s the boss! People can’t react they way they would with someone they know outside of work. If he can’t see the truth of that as a general statement, he might not be able to get it.

      Story time! I had a boss once who was just the best boss (aside from this one thing), and also a generally good person. Our team was about 15 people. In staff meetings she used to make jokes about how she could fire people. It was just the worst. It. Wasn’t. Funny. And it was very unusual for her to be so tone-deaf. (Nowadays I’d probably find a way to say something quietly. Back then, I was just astounded that she didn’t know it already and kept doing it.)

  5. Hello...ello...ello..ello..llo..llo..lo*

    You have a good opportunity with the upcoming team building. Chances are, based your description, that there will be a lot of ‘sharing opportunities’ This is a good time to share your feelings about being private and that you find it really uncomfortable when people pry into things that you don’t want to share.

    1. Tuxedo Cat*

      I hope the coworkers and boss would be okay with that, but I think it would be seen as being passive aggressive.

    2. OP*

      As a quick update, the teambuilding activity did occur. For the record – I did provide my colleagues slightly more info than what I provided in the letter (just in case my coworkers read this blog too!) They know which relative (a parent) and have a gist of the diagnosis (cancer) and they have a general gist of one of my illnesses (autoimmune disease). So I did give them some groundwork, albeit it was the most I was comfortable providing. I thought giving some info would be enough to appease, but apparently not.

      At the time I wrote to this blog, I also spoke to my therapist about this ordeal. Their advice was very similar to the three comments that Alison provided in her response. However, at the event when the CEO asked me bluntly about what was going on with my relative, I told him (and all the coworkers at the table) that I appreciate all of their concern, however when I’m at work I’d like to focus on work as talking about this really distresses me greatly and that if there’s any major changes to my relative’s status, I’d let them know.

      Unfortunately, that didn’t work. The CEO instead doubled-down on his previous sentiment, going into detail about how his relative was “standoffish” about that too, and how he told them they needed “to be more open”. It was painfully awkward.

      At the next team-building event (which they have every month UGH) I’ll try the last two things Allison recommended.

      1. WellRed*

        Wow. You’ve given them exactly enough information for them to back off and I can’t believe some people are still pushing. Your CEO is an ass.

        1. Bleeborp*

          Agreed, I really figured that she was being as vague to them as she was in the letter and that was the problem- that her boundary was especially extreme and that these folks just couldn’t wrap their head around it (even though they really should have respected it regardless) but she shared as much as I’d want to share and I’m a big-time sharer and not private at all!

      2. paul*

        Oh god, monthly? That’s already horrible.

        I feel like this is a “your boss sucks and isn’t going to change” situation though :/

        1. Snark*

          Yeah, this is ridiculous. This is a boss who has no concept of personal boundaries or even propriety.

      3. Robin Sparkles*

        Wow- yeah at this point you have a boss problem and not a concerned colleague problem. Keep your boundaries up -repeat your phrases kindly but firmly. I am sorry.

      4. Rusty Shackelford*

        Ugh. Next month, I’d push it harder. “I’m sorry, it upsets me too much to talk about it. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t bring it up again.” And then excuse yourself for 10-15 minutes to pull yourself together. Every time.

        1. Jersey's mom*

          Ditto. I would go into the bathroom or outside and just read pleasant things on my phone to calm me down. By leaving the situation, you make it clear that the discussion itself is upsetting and unacceptable. Best of luck with this as of a CEO. Start brushing up that resume.

        2. a1*

          I probably not be able to keep myself from saying something like “Quite frankly, I am disturbed by your inability to respect my boundaries and my privacy.” If I was feeling really bold/aggressive, maybe even add in “Do you treat your actual family this way, too?”

          1. Perse's Mom*

            Based on:

            The CEO instead doubled-down on his previous sentiment, going into detail about how his relative was “standoffish” about that too, and how he told them they needed “to be more open”.

            Yes, yes he DOES treat his actual family that way, too.

      5. General Ginger*

        Wow, OP, I am sorry you have to deal with a CEO who has no concept of personal boundaries on top of the monthly team-building.

      6. Kate 2*

        Not to say you should, but I would have politely lost it on my boss. I get very quiet, look dead-on in the person’s eyes, say “Let me get this right: You are calling me standoffish for not wanting to talk about the incredibly private and deeply painful details of a family member’s illness, against their will, at work?” If they don’t answer, then say “I want you to respect me and my wishes. Please don’t ever ask me about this again.” Speaking quietly and using please (and impactful words like “respect”) while using a very firm, serious tone helps destroy the “you’re so rude” attack. “How were you rude?” you can ask. And badger *them* a bit for an answer until they are forced to admit you weren’t rude.

      7. This Daydreamer*

        Wow. Your boss went from “nosy and concerned” to straight up asshole. I think I’d be desperately looking for a new job if I had to face that level of invasion.

        And team building activities every month? Really? Is your boss trying to turn the workplace into some kind of cult?

      8. Dee*

        Oh noooooo.

        I suspect that a team-building event every month would not be necessary on a functional team. Or at least, this type of event. I’m sorry your CEO is such a tool.

        I also really like the suggestion of walking away for a few minutes any time someone tries to bring this up.

      9. Someone*

        Oh gods, I hate hate hate people who don’t get that everyone perceives things differently. Does he also push people to eat things that they despise (I like it, so you have to like it, too!!!) and berate them for having a different taste in music than his?
        He sounds terribly immature. I feel for his relative.

      10. Julia the Survivor*

        If you decide to look for a new job, a larger organization might be better for respect and privacy. I work at a hospital which has written standards about how to treat people. Also in larger organizations people tend to be more focused on their work and team and not concerned with the personal details of everyone in the organization.

  6. Antilles*

    The company CEO is one of those types that believes the employees of his small business are a “family” and that everyone should be open about their lives.
    This is one of my personal pet peeves. No, we are not a family. I am an employee, doing a specific job with specific responsibilities at a specific quality of work for a specified package of salary and benefits. If any of those items change, one of us is going to dissolve this relationship.
    Or, more sarcastically, if you’d like us to be a ‘family’, then how come you keep most of the money? My wife and I share our income in a joint bank account; where’s my check for 50% of the company revenues?

    1. HappySnoopy*

      The problem here as “family”, you’re not the spouse in the relationship analogy, you’re the kid with an allowance–and a chore based allowance at that.

  7. Stormy*

    I would be glad to share a “family” level of information with this work place. My family is excellent at keeping our noses out of each other’s medical charts.

    Practically speaking, though, there have been times in which I have shared enough information to make a specific behavior stop. When someone was constantly harping after me for “good news” or “updates on improvement” I finally said something like “I appreciate your positive attitude, but this is incurable and degenerative. There won’t BE improvements.”

  8. MuseumChick*

    “Thank you for your concern! As this is my family members private medical information I am only discussing it with his/her doctors. I’m sure you understand.”

    1. Engineer Girl*

      Or.. “I’m extremely uncomfortable sharing others private data.”

      If this continues I’d up the ante with “Why is this information so important to you?”

      I guess I’m more cynical than Alison. Too many times I’ve seen gossips claim “concern” when all they want is a juicy tidbit.

      1. Work Wardrobe*

        “Why is this information so important to you?”

        Hell yes. Let them stew in this vat of hot water and see what they say.

        1. Rusty Shackelford*

          Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily stop the person who thinks they have a Right To Know (often because We’re All Family Here). They’re going to respond with “I just care about you/them” or something else that they think makes them look like the altruistic hero.

          1. zora*

            Then you have an opportunity to respond to their “reason” though, which could help maybe?

            “Well your questions are upsetting to me. If you care about me, please don’t make me talk about this any further.”

          2. AKchic*

            The “I just care about you/them” line is patently false, and they can be called out on it. Because if they cared so much, they would already be IN the loop and not be asking at work, when work matters should be discussed, not home-life matters.

            “The people who my family trust to know the specifics are already in the loop, but thank you for inquiring.” or if you really want to be salty, thank them for their curiosity.
            I have chronic medical issues and get curious people sometimes. It gets annoying, especially when the curious ones are also trying to glean information so they can sell me something from their side business (no, I don’t want your “herbal” remedies or not really “essential” snake oil).

              1. AKchic*

                Not anymore. Now I just get to deal with relations and those associated with my relations. I’m not known as “tolerant” of that type.

          3. Jennifer Thneed*

            Sure, but see, now they’re answering YOUR question:

            Them: nosy question
            You: Why do you want to know?
            Them: I just care so much!
            You: Oh, that makes sense.

            Notice that you haven’t given them any information at all. Don’t engage with their so-called “reason”! Maybe they’ll repeat, and you can just keeping asking why they want to know.

            (Disclosure: I haven’t had a chance to use this one since I learned about it.)

          4. Julia the Survivor*

            “Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily stop the person who thinks they have a Right To Know (often because We’re All Family Here). They’re going to respond with “I just care about you/them” or something else that they think makes them look like the altruistic hero.”
            I just love this community! <3 I've known so few outside of here who understand such things – or at least who say so. :)

  9. Crystal*

    As Alison said, I think the best bet would be playing into guilt or saying something like “work is my place to not worry and think about it and every time you bring it up it makes me think about it and get upset, so the nicest thing you can do is not ask me about it.” They’d be real jack*sses to bring it up again if you said that.

    When my Dad had cancer and I was in and out of the office, used FMLA, was flying back and forth a lot, etc. for 5 years my coworkers were so helpful and supportive, they were great for venting about Doctors and my Dad, etc., I’m glad I had them.

    1. k.k*

      Those responses are great because if the person truly is asking out of concern and care for you, they’ll stop once they know it doesn’t help. And if they’re a nosy jerk, this takes away their fake concern cover and just leaves them looking like jerks.

    2. Reba*

      Yeah, I think using emotional language/framing it as your vulnerability would satisfy some of the Nosers’ desire for a sense–or the performance–of having close relationships.

      Thanks for sharing your experience.

      1. Reba*

        To add, it turns Not Asking About It into something coworkers can do to help! Many people want to do something to help when their colleagues are stressed.

        1. fposte*

          Yes, exactly. The biggest busybody can happily turn into the “Don’t bug her about it!” police.

  10. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    I am also an intensely private person. The few times I’ve had a Situation, I’ve had to reframe it in my mind. My coworkers being nosy BECAUSE I’m private and they’re concerned about me. The also, genuinely, want to help. Now they aren’t at as nosy as the LWs, but I’ve had luck with: “Thank you for asking, I really appreciate it. I don’t want to talk about it at work so I can have a break from thinking about it. If there’s anything I need, I’ll definitely reach out.” It lets them feel heard and hopefully gets you out of talking about it.

  11. Amber O.*

    From what I’ve seen at least, most of it is genuine concern. I can’t tell you how many times people have approached me (department admin) to check on a coworker in a similar situation with questions like “Is there anything we can do to help them right now? Should we follow up with someone else on their duties for the time being so they aren’t bothered? Do they need any assistance with that project while they’re out? Should we avoid asking them specific questions about such-and-such?” Honestly, it seems to be coming from a place of concern and desire to make things easier for the person, not because they’re being a nosy jerk. Although if that’s not the case here, I hope OP can find a good way to shut down the questions for good!

    1. Goya de la Mancha*

      You can express general concern without badgering for details or wanting to talk about it. Asking if you could make a meal to help out one night is fine – demanding details such as diagnosis is not.

      1. Amber O.*

        Oh yes, I completely agree. I guess I meant to frame my comment as “people aren’t always trying to be jerks, sometimes they’re just concerned and that doesn’t translate well.” But demanding details is rude and disrespectful for sure. I can understand a boss asking for more information to get a better understanding of the situation for work reasons- if they need to cover your work or shift some of your projects around, reduce your responsibilities for the time being, or if you need to be out of the office frequently and it’s going to be a few days vs weeks or even months of care for the family member, etc. but coworkers demanding answers and details is definitely in bad taste after being told “I don’t want to talk about it.”

    2. JessaB*

      You can offer those items without knowing why the OP needs them though. You know someone is ill/injured, they need time to deal, you don’t need to know any more than “coworker having hard time, can we help?” The problem is that with SOME people (not you, and probably nobody in our commentariat,) they want to do the calculus. They want to know exactly to the minute detail what is going on so they can value judge whether the help someone wants is worthy help. If they don’t think the reason is good enough they won’t want to help. And that’s not how it works. Someone needs help, you help. You don’t get to decide whether or not they deserve help (except at a management level where “you’ve been out way too long/you need to apply for FMLA or whatever,” and that requires a higher level of detail to the persons responsible for approval.)

  12. all aboard the anon train*

    A lot of people don’t understand that not everyone wants help or condolences during times of grief, or that they don’t want to talk about it publicly. Sometimes people deal with grief or difficult situations best by keeping it to themselves, and since we have a culture of “grief should be shared and people should help you out during it!” not a lot of people understand that. And often well-meaning people who just want to help or want to make sure you’re okay keep pushing even if you’ve told them to stop.

    I think Alison’s scripts are great. I’ve always used, “I’d rather keep this private. Thank you for your concern, but I’m not comfortable talking about it”, because if people keep bothering you after that, they just look like a jerk who’s disrespecting your boundaries. Even if they’re trying to foist condolences or help on you, after you’ve turned them down politely, they really have no right to keep insisting you grieve or deal with a situation the way they would in your shoes.

  13. KR*

    I find when people are badgering you really hard and being nosy, you can say “Why do you need to know?” This will work after you have tried politely deflecting someone and they’re still bugging you. They’ll probably try to justify it to you and at that point you can say, “I really just need to focus on this Teapots report right now. ” Or whatever.

  14. Goya de la Mancha*

    Sorry OP :( This is not cool of the co-workers. I don’t get people who push for things like that! Actually my co-workers probably think I’m an uncaring royal B because I generally don’t ask how things are going in those cases. I figure if they want me to know, they will offer the information (if there is any new information to even offer). I think being as blunt and vague as possible is the only way to go – “I’m dealing with a family situation and while I appreciate your concern, I really do not wish to discuss this any further”.

  15. Ramona Flowers*

    My go-to phrase here is: “You weren’t to know, but this is upsetting for me to talk about.”

    1. fposte*

      Oh, that’s really nice. Exculpatory when said simply, with room for some passive-aggressive reproof if you want to take it there.

  16. sometimeswhy*

    I’ve used tactic 1 with success. I had a close family member go through extended and traumatic medical issues during which time I was their primary caregiver. As much as I could I kept my regular schedule in order to keep some sort of order during an otherwise chaotic time but there were times when I needed to be out without much notice because a specialist was available or because I’d been up late at the ER so everyone knew, in general, that I was dealing with a family medical crisis.

    My version went something like, “I appreciate your concern but this is all very stressful for me and being able to be here and have some sense of normalcy is really comforting. Thanks for not pushing. I’m going to go take a moment then in half an hour can we meet to talk about [thing]?” That disconnect/reconnect and focus on work was a step that seemed to get the message across to colleagues more than trying to pivot in the moment.

  17. DCompliance*

    I think being direct is your option. I appreciate your concern, but I would rather not discuss. This lets the person know you understand they care, but you establish boundaries.

  18. Emilitron*

    It’s not cool to push for details just be be caring and sociable. But, if you boss asks you point blank for some diagnosis or prognosis on the relative, it’s also possible they are asking for professional reasons surrounding your availability, focus, and scheduling. For example the difference between a long decline illness (eg dementia) or one with recovery (eg rehab after a car accident) would affect how long you’re likely to be in your current multitasking situation, and I can imagine a boss wanting to know if it’s going to be getting worse or better. So, among Alison’s answers, I’d include anything you’re comfortable sharing about how long you anticipate this to affect the workplace.

    1. Theresa T*

      Agreed. The coworkers who want the details aren’t owed anything, but this part stuck out to me: “My immediate supervisor once asked me point blank what my family member’s diagnosis was and continued to prod me for the exact details of their situation.”

      I think it’s reasonable for the immediate supervisor to be kept in the loop—not all of the details, of course, but enough to know how long/how much this could affect the team. And it makes sense to me to periodically check in to see if that status has changed. Any more than that gets into busybody territory, but it’s unclear to me exactly how much the OP shared with the supervisor.

      1. JessaB*

        And I think in those cases OP can reply without details of the problem, what issues it’s likely to bring up. It’s different between “She is having surgery and will recover fine,” as a one off thing for someone, and “She is having ongoing treatment and I may need x time off in x increments.” You still don’t have to get into details beyond that which may be relevant to people covering for you. “I will have to be out on dates,” is not the same as “This may get bad fast, I may not be able to give more than a day’s notice, let’s make sure Sorka can step into project Y if I have to leave.” But you still don’t have to say anything about WHAT the illness/injury/etc. is.

      2. Hapless Bureaucrat*

        And as the supervisor it would be good to word that question more like “you don’t have to share any details you aren’t comfortable with, but can you give me a sense of how this may impact your work/ schedule/ other topics.”
        This supervisor clearly didn’t do that, but reframing the answer may help, if OP hasn’t already done that.
        “Oh I won’t go into details– my loved one would be uncomfortable with that, I’m sure you understand– but if you’re asking about my schedule, this should affect my availability on Mondays and of course I’ll let you know if anything changes.”
        At this point it does sound like the supervisor and co-workers are pushing boundaries the OP has clearly set, but redirecting to the appropriate question might help deal with the supervisor if they think they have a need to know.
        (After all, I’ve had co-workers who thought they knew more about my diagnosis and work needs than my doctor did and tried to second-guess them. Why invite that situation by giving unnecessary details?)

        1. Theresa T*

          Definitely. If the OP originally told the supervisor that they had a relative with an ongoing medical issue or a one-off issue, then that gives them a baseline right there. But if the OP just said “She’s sick and was hospitalized” then that could mean a range of different care commitments. And, while it would be better for the supervisor to ask different questions: “How long do you anticipate this going on?” instead of “What’s the prognosis?” sometimes people seriously suck at framing questions the right way. So giving a little in terms of what the supervisor needs to know—not specifics of the treatment itself but how it will affect the work—will probably get the OP a much less stressful result. At the very least, it gives the OP a better leg to stand on in terms of keeping their boundaries in tact because the supervisor can’t say “I need to know more so I can assign the work to Peggy or move the client deadline” or whatever.

    2. HappySnoopy*

      Yeah, Allison touched on it some, but maybe couple the “please respect my family’s privacy” comments with any insight you can give boss on time frames of spotty availability. Even if things are in flux right now, give a time of a few days/weeks that you’ll have a better idea of long term issues. Then make a tasker to follow up around the end of that time frame if you haven’t before to give an update on schedule/impact (or if still in flux extend your dates). Whether it’s short or long term, you’re dealing with a new normal right now. Give yourself the time and space to deal.

      I hope things work out, OP.

  19. chica*

    I love all of Allison’s advice!

    You can also possibly deflect by saying that the family member is intensely private and has asked that you do not share anything specific about his/her issues.

    Like much of the other advice above, it can also be helpful to share something vague and thank them for their concern. “It’s serious but being managed and we have excellent medical care. Thank you for asking, and we are hopeful that the recovery will go well and we will be back to 100% shortly” or “he really doesn’t like to talk about the medical details, but thank you so much for your concern!” or “there are good days and bad days but it’s getting better, thanks for checking in!” (or whatever works that sounds like you are sharing but doesn’t actually say anything specific) rinse & repeat with slightly different phrasing and it will sound like you are sharing when really you aren’t saying anything at all.

    1. JessaB*

      Part of the future issue with deflecting with “I can’t talk about relative, relative doesn’t want people to know,” is that sooner or later the OP is going to be the one with the issue, and if they always deflect with Relative wants privacy, they’re going to be battered over the head with “now it’s you so you better tell us every single detail because it’s not your relative and we’re your friends/family so tell us everything right NOW.” In a Violet Beauregarde voice.

  20. Nita*

    *sigh* I never know where this line should be. I’m really impressed how my boss knows what’s going on with everyone, and so is in a position to help people if, say, they need a more flexible schedule. At the same time, there was a phase in my life where I wanted to share zero zip nada about my home life with coworkers, and that makes me very reluctant to ask others personal questions. That is, unless they volunteer the information and I know they’re OK talking certain personal things.

    OP, I imagine your coworkers are coming from a good place – if they know you’re going through a difficult situation, they feel that they can’t *not* check on you. Since you have a team-building event coming up, maybe that’s an opportunity to address them all at once. Maybe something like this would work: “Thank you all for your concern. I am coping with the situation as best I can, but work is my place to take a break and not think about these things for a while. I appreciate your help keeping it that way.”

  21. SitThisOneOut*

    I own a small company and if one of my people came to me and said “I have a family member who’s sick and I’m going to need extra time off,” I would certainly want a little more information before granting the request. Who is it that’s sick, and what kind of time frame are we talking about? When I read the original post, I thought the employee should have provided more info when asking for the special treatment and I was surprised that most everyone else on here thought the boss was only being nosy. Asking specifically about the “diagnosis” would, in most cases, be too nosy. But here it could be an attempt to gauge the length of time the employee will be dealing with this situation, seeing as how the boss has been given no information to go on.

    1. JessaB*

      Yes, but you can get to “okay how is this going to impact your work/attendance,” without knowing the why per se. The answer you need is a reasonable one, but OP doesn’t have to say “it’s cancer, it’s a car accident, it’s a drug overdose, my sister’s wife beat her, it’s a heart attack.” They just have to say “it’s a one off treatment, so barring complications, these days off.” It’s ongoing so “this time frame, this amount of days.” etc.

    2. OP*

      I did provide my boss and CEO and supervisor with more information than I provided in this letter, later on.
      However, they kept pushing for more details and constant (at a few points, weekly) updates. It was more of me trying to give them enough initial information to understand what was going on, without going into all the intimate details. The problem here, however, is that I keep getting pressed for all the gory details. I.E – what’s their hospital, their doctor name (even though the relative is out-of-state) what is their diet, if they tried such-and-such diet, and so on and so forth.

      1. The Supreme Troll*

        IMO, I think that their hearts are (probably) in the right place…but, yes, I definitely would start to think less of them if they continue to ignore the cues that Alison has correctly suggested along with a lot of the commenters above. Anyway, I really am wishing you all the best here, and for your boss and all of your colleagues to be understanding and not be so clueless on these hints.

        1. Work Wardrobe*

          Asking for the name of the hospital and doctor is not “heart in the right place” — it’s intrusive and none of their damn business!

      2. General Ginger*

        Their hospital and doctor name? That is incredibly intrusive and uncalled for. If they tried such and such diet? Beyond intrusive and uncalled for.

      3. Julia the Survivor*

        As a person with non-IgE food allergies I can sort of understand this. When I was learning about my food allergies and how to manage them, and that most doctors aren’t trained in them, I wanted to share this knowledge with everyone so they can feel and live better!
        I’m still impressed 17 1/2 years later by how patient one of my friends was with me trying to tell her what to eat for her medical problem. :) But that was a friend, not a colleague or boss. I eventually realized I couldn’t save everyone and that it’s not always good to do this.
        As others have mentioned, the real issue is they don’t back off after you’ve asked them too. They think they can help and are taking it to extremes.
        It sounds like there’s another thing going on – boredom. It sounds like they don’t have enough excitement or interest in their lives and this is exciting and interesting and they want to be involved in it.
        If this is the case, maybe you could re-direct their enthusiasm to something they find exciting? Maybe getting involved in a health or food allergy association, or something like that?

    3. Student*

      Why does it matter who, exactly is sick? Time-frame matters to the employer. But, really, why does it matter who it is? How will you judge that person’s relationship to the person asking for time, or the need, or whatever you propose to judge?

      It’s better to approach it as assuming this person is genuinely in need of help form your employee, and genuinely important enough to the employee that the employee really does want to give their time helping them.

      It’s okay for an employer to say “no” for business-related reasons, provided you comply with applicable laws. It’s not okay for an employer to say “no because you just weren’t close enough Uncle Fred to qualify – if only you’d exchanged more post-cards, or he’d been your father instead, then we could give you time off to care for him while he dies of cancer”. That’s not a boss’s business to judge.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        Because some relationships are protected under FMLA and some aren’t.

        If I run a small business and I have someone tell me that they need to be off every other day to take care of their second cousin, once removed and that’s going to put undue hardship on my business, I don’t have to grant the request.

        1. fposte*

          Yup. If you’ve moved beyond spouse, child, or parent (FMLA does recognize that there are people who can stand in loco parentis without being actual parents), you’re not covered by FMLA on the federal level. Some states may extend that definition–it looks like California’s family leave extends to the grandparents and grandkids and to in-laws–but I think that’s uncommon.

    4. Alpha Bravo*

      I worked for a small organization and when I asked for a reduced schedule to care for my spouse during his (terminal) illness, my boss asked me for documentation and an estimate from his doctor as to how much time off I would need, and for what duration. I provided the requested documentation and worked the agreed-upon schedule. Quite predictably, my spouse passed prior to the duration of treatment specified in the documentation (stage 4 metastatic lung cancer pretty predictably ends in death). What was not predictable for me was the PTSD and panic attacks, which exacerbated other physical issues and left me unable to work for six weeks following his memorial. Unfortunately, in spite of daily status emails to my managers and team I had no warning from my boss (or any communication at all – no reply to any of my emails, no phone calls, nothing) when the boss decided to “lay me off” due to my “absence.” Via UPS. A week before Christmas.

      I understand that bosses need enough details to plan how the work will be covered. But sometimes communication is a one-way street. I might be a little bitter about that.

    5. Work Wardrobe*

      If your employee is a good employee, one that you want to keep, what exactly gives you the right to know who they have to help? Families come in all forms. Many people are estranged from parents yet have family-like, CARING relationships with others.

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          And at the end of the day, these people are running a business and the work needs to be done. Yes, they should be as compassionate and accommodating as they can be, but they may not be able to provide everything an employee is asking for.

          1. Stellaaaaa*

            This point gets lost a lot here. Your boss doesn’t have to pay you for a job you’re not actually doing. Depending on how small this business is, they might not even qualify for FMLA. If that’s the case, they have already been extremely generous toward OP.

  22. Lumen*

    The biggest red flags here are “we’re all faaaaamily” and “the CEO is HR”. I’ve been there. And given my experience with similar workplaces, I’m not inclined to give the CEO and workplace much benefit of the doubt. If they need to know about the OP’s availability, they should be asking about availability. There is zero reason they need to be asking about exact diagnoses or prodding for details about someone else’s health.

    It is one thing to ask how someone is doing, or even to ask out of curiosity (we’re human, after all). But it takes just a dollop of self-awareness to include “If you’d rather not discuss it, please, don’t feel obligated to answer, I just want you to know I’m here if you need anything”. And it just takes basic decency to back off when someone sends signals (or says outright) that they don’t want to talk about something.

    So my take is this: not only do they want information that isn’t any of their business, not only are they (knowingly) making the OP uncomfortable, they seem to think they are ENTITLED to the private health information of a coworker… and the coworker’s family. They aren’t. It’s appalling that they are treating a coworker they supposedly care about like this, and then having the gall to get butthurt when their ‘care’ is ‘rejected’.

    No matter how much of a ‘sharer’ or ‘non-sharer’ you are, it’s just a sign of immaturity if you can’t have a cordial professional relationship with someone who doesn’t want to spill every private detail of their lives with you. The problem here isn’t that the OP is being cold or not understanding other people’s personalities; the problem is that their workplace has terrible boundaries.

    1. JessaB*

      And worse, if CEO is HR, how much privacy does someone filling out FMLA paperwork have with this over-sharer? Sooner or later if the company is big enough (small can still be big enough to qualify for loads of things,) there is going to be paperwork that needs to be done, and I wonder if this person has any clue how to keep private things private?

      1. Lumen*

        Ding ding ding ding ding!

        All the pressure is on the OP to figure out if they are asking as the CEO, as HR, or as a ‘friend’, and what information would be appropriate or necessary to give.

  23. Elizabeth West*

    Alison, as always, advises the polite approach. So I will say it for those who cannot.

    Dear employers who think their company is a “faaaaaaaaaamily,” and nosy coworkers:


    Carry on.

      1. AKchic*

        And coffee mugs. And huge signs in the bathrooms. And at every desk. By any and every coffee pot, water dispenser, on every refrigerator, vending machine, snack area and at any natural congregating area. Maybe tattoo it to the owner’s hand.

        1. A.N. O'Nyme*

          And hats. We can’t forget hats. And little flags. Maybe one of those big foam glove things, too.
          You could probably theme an entire store around it.

    1. Paquita*

      I work for a family owned company. HOWEVER, at ~8000 employees in 80+ locations, we are not small. My group does share things. My father was in the hospital two weeks ago and they sent around a card to sign for him. Last year one of my coworkers lost everything in a house fire. We brought in donations. Other departments don’t do this kind of thing. Whatever your privacy comfort level, it will be respected. I see the CEO and president (son and grandson of the founder) in the hall sometimes and say hi. They do considered everyone ‘family’ but boundaries are respected.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        That’s really nice. Exjob did this too, to a degree; they would announce births or deaths but only if the employee said it was okay (5,000+ employees). Stuff like that tended to stay within departments, most of the time.
        I think this does tend to occur more in smaller companies where owners feel very proprietary and “this is my life; it should be yours too” about their businesses.

  24. Student*

    These kind of approaches work with people who have a basic respect for boundaries, and/or people who relate to others normally but haven’t quite realized they are being too nosy for someone’s comfort. I hope they work for you. But, to me, it doesn’t sound like these are people who just need a clearer explanation of the boundary and a little push-back.

    If you find that’s the case, here’s an approach that will work. Feed the beast something you don’t care about, so you can protect the things you do care about. Make up a fake uncle with a fake disease and go on and on about it until they’re satisfied. Have your one fake, gossipy, interesting, easy thing you talk about with your co-workers. Make it something difficult to prove or disprove (like a fake uncle no one’s ever going to meet). Make it something you think they’ll really hone in on. Give them a target for their attentions that they can keep on about infinitely and you just won’t care. They’ll get so distracted by the shiny offering that they won’t ever notice the real things you’re distracting them from.

    That’s how I survived my boundary-stomping parents for my entire childhood. They had to have something to criticize and pick apart and endlessly go on about. So I gave them something bright and shiny and obvious and obnoxious that was guaranteed to get their full attention – and something I had no actual emotional attachment to, unbeknownst to them. They were always focused on this Horrible Obvious Thing, so I got plenty past their notice that I actually cared about and would’ve been hurt to have to go through their unfortunate attentions.

  25. A.N. O'Nyme*

    “What is your family member’s diagnosis?!” “None of your business.”
    Sorry, had to get that out of my system. Do not say this if you want to preserve your relationship with your colleagues and boss.
    Also, OP, if at all possible and this annoys you too much I’d suggest looking for another job. If Allison’s advice doesn’t work, it might eventually going to annoy you to the point of dreading going to work (especially if there’s other wonky stuff going on).
    And to everyone else: “No, I don’t want to talk about it” is an acceptable answer. Treat it as such.

  26. Sandra Stout*

    “Mom/Sis/Cousin Its would be mortified if I shared any details, sorry.” Does that work? It’s not really your story to tell.

  27. mf*

    Hmmm. The CEO says his employees are his “family” AND fills the HR function? Not a good sign.

    LW, if I were you, I’d be thinking about my next step. Not that you have to jump ship immediately, but this place doesn’t seem like a good long term fit for you.

  28. Plague of frogs*

    Mrs Ploppy: It would be more, more fun, Sir, if he were to change his name. Give the place a more family atmosphere.
    Blackadder: A family atmpsphere ? This is meant to be a place of pain and misery and sorrow.
    Mrs Ploppy: That’s what I mean, Sir.

  29. HappySnoopy*

    Ugh, after reading OP updates, wondering if they should pull a Carolyn Hax idea. Cheerfully and politely answer a different question than what’s asked. I don’t know I’ll repeat it well, but along the lines of:

    Q: Hey what’s latest on family?
    A: oh, I prefer not to discuss. Thanks for understanding.
    Q:But did they try shark cartilage?
    A: I enjoy going to the beach in summer.
    Q: No I’m talking about treatment. Is family member getting enough rest? What’s the latest prognosis?
    A: I prefer mountains to the beaches.
    Q: ???
    A: [smile]

    1. The Expendable Redshirt*

      I salute you HappySnoopy. How’s this script?

      Q: Hey what’s latest on family?
      A: I don’t know anything new. Besides, I’m at work to escape all of that. How’s that teapot report going?
      Q:But did they try shark cartilage?
      A: I enjoy cats.
      Q: No I’m talking about treatment. Is family member getting enough rest? What’s the latest prognosis?
      A: Cat yoga was great last week. Have you thought about trying it?
      Q: ???
      A: [smile]

  30. nelly*

    In your situation I’ve used gentle ‘guilt’ deflecting. If you can make yourself a bit visibly fragile, you can make them happy co-conspirators in your silence.

    “It’s all very stressful, and to keep talking about it just stresses me out even more. Let’s talk about something cheerful, instead! INSERT HAPPY TOPIC HERE”

    “If I go into it, I’ll cry or something, so hey, cheer me up, please! Can you tell me about your CAT DOG BIRD BABY FAVOURITE TV SHOW DEFLECTION TOPIC?”

    “I don’t want to talk about it, it’s all a bit much right now I’m sure you can understand. Hey, tell me something good about your life! What’s making you happy right now? Do you have a good book recommendation?”

    “I come to work to get away from that, INSERT FAKE LAUGH! Did you see EPISODE OF TV SHOW THE LAST JEDI GAME OF WHATEVER… Was it good? Should I CONSUME THAT MEDIA”

    Just make it about them being helpful and supportive, so they can feel good without you having to give up the deets. Everybody happy and hopefully lets them know you’re not up for the discussion just yet.

  31. Keep Your Eyes On The Prize*

    The next time someone asks a health question ask them if they’d like to hear about anal fissures.

  32. Question*

    “(Interestingly, “we’re like family here” tends only to work to the employer’s benefit — like you’ll be guilt-tripped if you push back against long hours or unreasonable demands, because “family,” but somehow you’ll be an employee again when it comes to your request for a flexible schedule or a raise.)”

    @Allison, with due respect, do you actually have data to back up this claim, or is it born of cynicism?

    1. Swan*

      I do not blame her for her cynicism because I also have the same reaction when I hear employer stating “we are just like family here.”

      When I hear that an employer views their employees as family, I wonder if this means that they will do everything in their power to avoid firing or laying off employees.

      Because, if your employees are really “like you family,” you never would consider laying off “family members” to save a few bucks and firing employees would be a last resort in dealing with bad behavior.

  33. Gaming Teapot*

    @OP: Dear god. I wrote my earlier comment without having read the rest of the thread. I’ve changed my mind. I have only one recommendation for you:


    Seriously, this blatantly disrespectful behavior on part of your CEO is absolutely dysfunctional. Get out ASAP. You don’t deserve to have to put up with this.

  34. RobotWithHumanHair*

    I’m so non-sharing that my boss at my old job didn’t even know when my wife and I had our first child (thankfully, it occurred on the weekend, so I didn’t even need to take time off). He found out later and seemed a bit irked, but I REALLY didn’t like sharing any personal details with him because I always felt it gave him leverage over me.

    Mind you, when I divulged when our second child was being born because I NEEDED to take a day off to be at the hospital, he apparently freaked out the day I was gone, wondering where I was because he had forgotten about the day off that I had requested and approved over a month prior.

    So I think I made the right decision the first time!

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