my coworker is unbearably negative

A reader writes:

I have to sit with a coworker twice a month shut in an office by ourselves for several hours — and all she does is complain and groan about life and process all of her problems. I’d especially love your advice on ways to say “Hey, you’re so negative that I actually dread your visits and I never wanted to be your therapist” in a way that won’t hurt her feelings/is socially acceptable.

Background: I work as admin/secretary position where I work in an office alone 90% of the time. I communicate with my boss by phone and take calls from clients with work happening on the field. Twice a month, we have a bookkeeper (Jane) who comes in for 3-4 hours and does her work while I take calls and do other tasks.

This bookkeeper is, well, definitely one of the most negative people I’ve ever met in my life. She’s very nice, and we would probably be friends if it weren’t for this. Think like an energetic Eeyore who’s a middle aged woman. I’ll say, “Hi Jane, how are you?” She’ll say, “I’m doing ok, except [goes on rant about husband/other work/politics/natural disaster/her health/etc.]” and she goes on. and on. and on. Until I want to take a shower from the negativity in the room. When she leaves, I open windows and vacuum and play happy music. I’m not exaggerating.

My boss is aware of this and he sometimes sends me on errands when he knows she’ll be in, but he can only do so much.

I’ve tried changing the subject to something positive every few minutes/being Pollyanna. She turns whatever I say into something sad. “Yes, the sun looks pretty, but we could really use some rain. It’s TERRIBLE some of the issues happening with the drought. Did you hear about the fires happening in [area]? Terrible.”

Other things I’ve tried:
– Finding safe subjects, though I’ve only really succeeded in finding marginally less negative subjects.
– Being busy with other work and phone calls and saving things up for when she gets there, but I can only do that so much and she goes on monologues in between my calls.
– Taking my lunch while she’s here, but I can’t escape the whole time.
– Disagreeing with her. “My husband says I should just tell them to leave” … “Yeah, I agree with your husband.”
– Asking her what she plans to do about [thing she’s complaining about] which just makes her go, “I don’t know” and then go on a rant about how terrible it is that she doesn’t know what to do and replay everything she just said.
– Finding a reason to say, “I can’t talk now, I need to do X” and she’ll start talking out loud to herself and complaining, then asks me work related questions laced with negativity.

I feel like this is a nonconsensual therapy relationship, and she just expects me to be her therapist. I don’t mind her sharing stuff going on in her life but I don’t want to listen to this level of negativity. Can you help me? How do I set boundaries with her? Is there anything else I can I do?

 

{ 139 comments… read them below }

  1. Grace

    This reminds me of a coworker that literally complains every day about having to do his job. He makes comments like “If [workload] stays like this I might have to start looking for another job.” But this is an empty threat. I understand our work can be stressful, but other people step into his role when he’s unexpectedly out for whatever reasons (which is at least once a month) and they never complain, are much more efficient, and actually offer to help me when I have too much work. He is supposed to help me when his workload is lower but is the only coworker that never offers. He would be very offended and defensive if I pointed out his negativity and most likely hold a personal grudge, so I just listen and don’t respond anymore. /rant

    1. RabbitRabbit

      It would be rude of me to suggest that you make encouraging noises/comments when he says that. So I won’t. ;)

    2. Coffee Bean

      Ugh, hate those people.

      I used to work with someone like this – my solution was to just assume he was always joking. He eventually stopped saying those things to me and would just jump to “what job lets you sleep all day?”, not that it is a complete solution, but I found it way less annoying.

      Him: “If I have to actually show up and do my job, then I am going to quit” (not verbatim, but basically the message)

      Me: “HAHA Right! Got to figure out how to achieve my dream job of sitting on a beach with a margarita in hand. Will be rich once I get that job.”

      1. VictorianCowgirl

        I love your response. Totally (purposefully) missing his point and not taking him seriously in a way that makes it less likely for him to continue griping without making you look rude in his eyes. Well done :)

    3. Oh So Very Anon

      I used to have a boss (so no recourse) who always had to one-up (or one-down, depending on how you look at it) whatever was going on. If you had a headache, she had a migraine. If you stubbed your toe, she sprained her ankle. If your mom was sick, “Uh oh, watch out, prepare yourself for the end.” I am not kidding. It just… wears on you.

      1. JSPA

        See, I understand that as, “oh, I know where you’re coming from and commiserate.” And, “hey, it could be worse.” Which some people do find useful (seeing ones misery in the grand scheme of things) and others find irksome (let me have my moment of catharsis over my stubbed toe, the universe and your gout be damned).

        1. MLB

          There’s a big difference between commiserating and one-upping. The examples above are one-upping, which basically is saying “you may have problems, but mine are way worse”. This isn’t sympathizing or commiserating. This is someone who makes everything a competition and always has to win.

          1. Ellen

            Oh, lord, I had a friend that was SO THIS. I’m naturally somewhat depressed, and i ended up just, well, sort of ghosting her. I’ll send her the odd texted hi, but be too busy to chat, so sorry.

          2. Oh So Very Anon

            This, MLB. One time (in response to her query — I learned not to volunteer) I told her that my mother, who is in assisted living, was feeling a little poorly and wasn’t eating all that much lately. She said that was surely the sign of “the end.” She actually used the term “circling the drain” to describe what was happening to my mom, and suggested I prepare myself. New boss now. Much happier. And mom is TERRIFIC. Her appetite improved when she got over her cold.

          3. RUKiddingMe

            Person A: “When I was a kid we walked to school three miles, up hill, both ways, in the snow, in June, with no shoes on our feet.”

            Person B: “Feet? You had feet?”

            1. WonderingHowIGotIntoThis

              These people listened to The Four Yorkshiremen sketch and saw no satire. Hubby and I refer to these people as Elevenerifers. (as in if you’ve been to TENerife, they’ve been to ELEVENerife).

              Unfortunately, there’s often no good way of dealing with them. Or if there is, I haven’t found it yet, and would appreciate the advice!

            2. matcha123

              “Look at this fatcat with enough calories to walk, I had to lay on the street and teach myself to read when bits of newspaper would stick to my face.”

              I also had a one-upper coworker, it was frustrating and she definitely was not trying to identify with me.
              I’ve had a lot of complaining coworkers, mostly one or two people per place I’ve worked. Some of them only want someone to listen to them. In that case, I can kind of tune it out. But engaging is difficult. I wonder if the OP can wear headphones or have a radio on…?

        2. RUKiddingMe

          I don’t know. I see it as akin to calling something a “first world problem.” Sure not the worst thing happening, and others have it worse (first world/third world, stubbed tow/sprained ankle…etc.) but that doesn’t make X any less of a problem for the person in the middle of it. It’s really pretty rude and dismissive.

      2. Flash Bristow

        Oh yeah, I call these people “you’ve got a headache, she’s got a brain tumour”.

        Exhausting.

        My solution – for them, or the Eeyore that OP described – is just to go “Ah well!” in a breezy manner, then pointedly ignore.

        Headphones are useful too.

      3. Maria Lopez

        With people like that I like to say, “it’s not a competition.” If they don’t understand what I mean, I explain to them that they cannot respond to anything I say without saying something about their situation being worse, or maybe better, as the case may be. It is a habit, and they can break it if they want to.

        1. RUKiddingMe

          u go to tends to be “life is not a zero sum game.” Unfortunately I’ve said that to people who don’t understand “zero sum” and have had to explain it, then I end up talking to them longer than I wanted to to begin with and then…

    4. EvilQueenRegina

      Someone at my ex-ex-job used to go on like that about having to start looking for another job in much the same way. 13 years on he’s still there.

  2. MommyMD

    When someone is just running at the mouth no matter the content I say “I really need to concentrate, thanks”. If this doesn’t work I escalate to “I can’t chart with the distractions” (insert whatever you’re doing). I keep rinsing and repeating til it stops which is pretty quick.

  3. Swarkles

    Maybe you should just say: “Hey, you’re so negative that I actually dread your visits and I never wanted to be your therapist.”

    1. Snark

      Came here to say this! I mean, maybe soften that up just a bit for social form – “I don’t know if you realize this, but conversations with you generally revolve around really negative topics, and I would really prefer to keep things more work-appropriate and neutral” could be a thing.

      1. wittyrepartee

        Alternatively- “I’ve noticed that your conversations tend to be extremely negative, and it sounds like that must be a really stressful and upsetting way to view the world. Have you considered seeing a therapist about this? It really helped _____.”

        Then whenever she does it again, you go “you know, if you need any help looking up therapists, I’d be happy to assist! You can even do teletherapy now, so easy! There’s a way to look up therapists through Psychology today.”

        On and on and on. I mean, it does actually sound like she’s probably not in a great headspace right now- that or she has terrible conversational skills.

    2. JSPA

      “I’m on a positive thinking mental diet between 9 and 5, so let’s find something happy to talk about.”

      1. GreenDoor

        I always say “Gee, you’re one of those people that’s just not happy unless you’re miserable, aren’t you.” All but one person has gotten the point.

      1. Glitsy Gus

        Until they say, “yeah, my puppy got Parvo last year…” heh.
        Seriously, though, I’ve done that too, it can work if the person is at all self aware.

    1. The elephant in the room

      I didn’t know this was a real thing! On a whim, I started doing something similar to my husband and the results make me want to murder him a whole lot less. 10/10

    2. The elephant in the room

      To stay on topic, though, I wonder if the coworker ever does anything positive enough to warrant a reward.

    3. Weegie

      Someone wrote a novel on these lines back in the 50s. It’s called ‘If a Man Answers’, by Winifred somebody (I think).

      1. Veruca Salt

        When I was a preschool teacher, I used a similar method with toddlers, especially ones that came to me with reputations for being difficult. (All toddlers are difficult, but not to the same degree.)
        I’d look for the smallest good behavior and verbally reward it. The kid who makes big messes puts up one toy: “You put the toy on the shelf! You are a good helper!” The kid who usually hits or take toys plays nicely with another child for one minute: “You are playing nicely with Jack. You are a good friend.”
        Basically I try to flip any negative notion of themselves they’ve acquired. I look for the smallest positives and put a name on it- kind, gentle, tidy, helpful. Pretty soon they start to see themselves that way and adjust their behavior to fit their new self view. They do kind things because they are kind, they do helpful things because they are helpful. The negatives, like hitting and fighting, don’t fit this and they get dropped for the most part.
        Note: I’ve never tried this on anyone older than five.

        1. WonderingHowIGotIntoThis

          Look up “The Pygmalion Effect”.
          Basically, if you (and by extension the child) believe they are good/better than their current behaviour, they will want to prove you (and by extension themselves) right and start being good/better than their current behaviour. It’s fascinating.

    4. Ann Nonymous

      I read this article way back when, and I totally use it on my new husband (both of us were married before). I just had to Shamu him yesterday when I got home and he was cussing and fussing about normal kitchen issues – he was cooking, yay! – so I went into my home office and closed the door. He finished making the meal, calmed down, and while we were eating apologized for being an a-hole. I told him I knew he was stressed so left him alone which he said he appreciated. Old Me would have tried to help and jolly him up and it only would have made things worse.

    5. zaracat

      I’ve had a colleague do this to me. I was a bit of a Jane, due to going through a huge amount of personal stress which was spilling over into work, and she was a very calm, centred person (also a yoga teacher, which may be relevant). I noticed that she would put up with negative talk for a small amount of time – enough so that I felt heard and not ignored or dismissed – but then she’d gently redirect or subtly withdraw her attention, and I’d only get her attention back when I switched to more positive talk. When she was giving her attention though, it was her full attention. I felt as if she was genuinely interested in me and not just going through the motions. Over time I noticed my behaviour change, and not only did I talk less about negative things, it also felt less important to me to do so. And all of this happened even though I understood the concept of behavioural shaping and could see what she was doing. I found it a very interesting experience.

  4. Bunny Girl

    Oh gosh I had to deal with this. I worked in a small office and there was a woman who came in once a week to do accounting and she was such a nightmare. It was only once a week but myself and my office mate would actively dread her visits. She was very negative as well, plus she sold some garbage MLM thing and kept trying to get us to come to her “parties.” On top of everything else, she was a food thief and would steal my really expensive coffee creamer that I buy because of my food allergies.

    Could you possibly ask your boss if there is somewhere else this woman could sit? If they already know about the issues, then maybe there could be some moving around so she didn’t have as much access to you? Very sorry you’re dealing with this. People should assume they have another person’s permission to emotionally dump all over them.

    1. Ginger

      Let’s be honest, most people act like 5 year olds anyway. I bet your technique would work in 99% of workplaces today :)

  5. Myrin

    I just started listening and can I just say, Alison, you’re my hero with that “Ughhhh, fascinating.” at 4:11.

      1. Flash Bristow

        Maybe just ask? “If I had something to say about the way you do X, would you like to know about it?”

        I bet even if it’s an initial no, curiosity will get the better of her sooner or later! You could even have fun with it… “Oh, thought you weren’t interested… Nooooooo, don’t trouble yourself…” ;)

        (Depends on your relationship of course.)

  6. Stuff

    Can you work from home that one day a month? Otherwise just be direct- you only see her 12 times a year. If it makes things awkward so be it.

  7. Marissa Graham

    Do the links to the transcripts get added to a post or a pinned comment in the original post when they go up, or do they just go on the transcripts page?

      1. Flash Bristow

        I get so frustrated waiting for the transcript!

        Then again, compared to the automated subtitles on you tube, it’s worth the wait!

      2. Hearing Impaired But Still Working

        Please, AAM, is there any way to make these transcripts available quicker? Those of us with hearing issues cannot listen to podcasts.

        1. Courageous cat

          It’s weird that this comes up every single time (and this goes to the commenter above you as well). She’s literally just one person and has other stuff to do than this website, many podcasts don’t so providing it at *all* is a pretty cool thing, etc etc.

  8. LadeeDa

    I am only in the office 1-2 a month, and when I am I have to use a hotel open space, and it is right next to a guy who complains non-stop loudly about people we work with!! I don’t want to be associated with that negative talk, especially about people. I usually grab my laptop and run away, I will sometimes end up booking a conference room, which sort of defeats the purpose of me going into the office and being visible.

  9. anonami

    Omg I have a co-worker like this and they are driving me absolutely bonkers!! And I sit with her all day every day.

    The worst thing is that anything that anyone else has an issue about doesn’t bother her ever. In other words, they take the worst possible interpretation of everything, but if I am frustrated or annoyed, it is always no big deal and she can’t understand why it bothers me.

    I am someone who trends towards pessimism and I work really hard to be more positive and this is making it difficult.

    1. Rebecca

      I hear you! For a year and a half I had to sit with one of those “Negative Nancy’s”. She complained, “effing this” and “effing that” and “eff” that person, I’m so overwhelmed, I’m so busy, I hate this place, I can’t wait until I don’t have to walk through that door ever again, is it Friday yet? (at 8 AM on Monday morning). It went on and on and on and on. Manager was aware, but did nothing. I put in earbuds and listened to music, podcasts, books, whatever to drown her out. Finally she was let go because she wasn’t doing her job. I have never been so happy to be free of an office mate. I don’t love my job, I really have no feelings one way or the other, I know how to do it and they give me money and benefits, so it works out, and I don’t need the constant negative commentary every day.

    2. MLB

      Have you said something to them? I tend to vent, but not constantly, although at my last job I was really unhappy and was pretty negative most of the time. It wasn’t until my manager told me that 2 of our newbies asked her why I was still working there if I was so unhappy that I realized how bad it was and changed my tune (and also worked on getting the hell out of there).

      Not saying this would work on everyone, but it’s worth a shot. If anything, you could at least keep telling them that the negativity is negatively affecting you and they need to tone it down.

  10. Anony123

    For kicks & giggles….
    Maybe try one upping? Everybody hates a one-upper. Reply to “isn’t that awful” with “well it’s not as bad as [even more grave situation].” Every. Time.
    Or maybe when she says “my husband says I should tell them to leave” try responding with “youre lucky/ you should be grateful that you have a house & friends who want to visit.”

    1. Oh So Very Anon

      Oh, no, don’t do that! In this particular species, it will only incite further negative behavior. She’ll think she found her peeps, and she’ll just escalate.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        I suggested jokingly on the show that she lean into it — when the coworker is complaining about her husband, be like “yeah, your husband sounds like a real asshole.” But she said the coworker would just keep going! (It’s at 8:42.)

        1. Oh So Very Anon

          I can’t listen to the podcast at work, so didn’t hear that. My response was a joke as well, but totally based on experiences I’ve had!

          Can’t wait to get home tonight to listen to the whole thing.

        1. No Mas Pantalones

          I just barely avoided spitting pretzel bits onto my monitor. Instead, I choked and now I’m hack-laughing. I needed that [hack]laugh today!

  11. Not the Boss

    This person is an emotional vampire. Stay calm and get out of there as fast as possible. That means don’t give in to the negativity, just respond to work related issues only.

    1. Lady Ariel Ponyweather

      I agree. As someone who used to be like this, although nothing to this degree (oh God, I hope it wasn’t to this degree), there is no nice way to say “You’re negative and a drain on my energy”. I haven’t listened to the podcast and am sure you got great advice. Just please know that you do not have to be polite or entertain this person. She has her own issues and is pushing them on to you. She’s draining your energy so she can feel alive.

      1. The elephant in the room

        “oh God, I hope it wasn’t to this degree”

        Ha! I had the same thought about myself. I try really hard to stay positive about things and be a good team player and whatnot, but sometimes life gets to me. But I saw the title of this one and thought, “Oh no. This is it. This is the day someone calls in about me….”

        But, no, I’ve definitely never been THIS bad.

        1. catwoman2965

          Yup, that makes three of us. Thankfully, as I’ve gotten older, I realize when I’m just whining and complaining, and being aware of it, i really try and keep things in check. But i was never this bad.

      2. Not So NewReader

        I am a big fan of self-talk so I think this is a really great idea even if OP only says it to herself and not out loud.
        Say things to yourself, OP, like, “I am having a good day” or “This is her upset to carry, it’s not for me to carry it.”

      3. Seeking Second Childhood

        Reforming Eeyores unite. We can do it. We don’t need to abuse “vent out” to this extent.

  12. YarnOwl

    I have a coworker like this, but the negative thing she always wants to talk about is her diet. It’s very restrictive and if she goes off it she gets headaches and sick (and she started it to lose weight so it’s self-imposed) and she complains about it almost constantly. It’s so boring to listen to, but at the same time really difficult to listen to because I’ve wrested with problems about my self-confidence and food and weight and all that garbage and hearing her talk about how she was “so bad” this weekend and ate a SANDWICH with WHITE BREAD just stirs all of that up for me.

    And she takes any chance she can find to bring it up, even if she’s not part of the conversation or it’s about something else.. The other day a coworkers was talking to me and she was not a part of this conversation at all (as in, he was facing me, his back was to her, we were talking specifically about an event he went to with his family that we had been talking about earlier) and she butted in to talk about how she can’t eat any of the food they ate at this event and how she wishes she could but it makes her sick and on and on an on. It is………just exhausting.

    1. Lettuce Mutton Tomato

      White bread?! The devil’s carbohydrate of choice?! How DARE she.

      Oh, how I sympathize! I work in a small office with three other people and they are all on diets. It is a constant topic of conversation around here. It’s made me realize that I had some disordered thinking about food in the past. All of this talk about how hungry they are, how restrictive their diets are, how they feel guilty for not going to the gym last night, and on and on is making me so anxious and tense. Hearing my co-worker, who I probably outweigh, talk about how she calls herself “piggy” and “porker” to motivate herself is more than a little offputting. Like… what am I then? While I try to eat well and exercise, I no longer want to waste my mental energy tracking every calorie I’ve consumed and feeling guilty when I overindulge or don’t have time for a workout. This constant diet talk and comparison of progress is really stressing me out and is bringing that whole mentality back to me!

      Let’s not even get started on the diet shaming going on around here. God forbid one of them takes a piece of candy from the communal dish. Someone is going to notice and publicly shame them for it. I am so ready for diet season to be over.

      1. Renee

        I had an ex-friend like that and she was absorbed with gym, food and exercise. She could not have one conversation that didn’t centre around these topics.

      2. catwoman2965

        Oh that sounds like my one boss. She’s a bit of a narcisist, and knows everything about everything (at least in her own mind), and has, shall we say, some interesting dietary habits and opinions. But to the point of being really annoying “carbs are bad”, so she doesn’t eat them. Ever. and no one else should as well.

        Red meat is bad. again, doesn’t eat it so no one else should. And shes on some tirade about gluten and how we all should avoid it. Nope, sorry, great if all that works for you, and I’m certainly not one to knock anyone’s dietary preferences or needs, but please don’t try and impost all your opinions etc. on everyone else.

      3. VictorianCowgirl

        Oh no that is really really horrible! That sounds like a really unhealthy environment. Public shaming is beyond the pale. I hope something can bring about a change in the culture at your workplace. I have no advice for you, just sympathy.

      4. Miss Pantalones en Fuego

        Ugh, I hate that kind of talk. I’m objectively fat but have been trying to make peace with it for my own sanity. A colleague who is very much not fat often makes little comments like that about herself. I always feel a bit like I’ve been stabbed in the heart when she does, because I imagine that she is a actively disgusted by me and just hiding it.

  13. Goya de la Mancha

    I stop asking things of people like this. I’ll say “Good Morning Debby Downer” and leave it at that. If they ask how I am, I say “I’m fine, thanks!” and keep it moving. I’m sure it comes across as rude, but I just mentally don’t have the stamina to deal with people like this most days – especially people who I’m not emotionally invested in (ie: loved ones).

  14. Autumnheart

    I don’t know if I could restrain myself from saying, “Oh my lord, Jane, you are so unbelievably negative! Every time I see you, it’s just hours of complaints non-stop. Don’t you ever have anything good to talk about? You’re such a nice person otherwise.”

    1. PlainJane

      That’s not a bad idea. Say it as kindly as possible, but call it out. When she starts, maybe say something like, “Hey, I don’t know if you realize this, but a lot of what you say can be really negative. Could we talk about something happy instead?” I’ve started doing this with my (adult) son, who used to complain pretty much every time his mouth was moving. I’m a little more flip with him–“Hey, ___, do you realize that’s 5 complaints in 10 minutes?” He’ll get annoyed sometimes, but he’s complaining less now and catching himself when he does it. I think some people don’t realize how negative they are.

      1. Shannon

        Yeah my Dad who I miss A LOT had turned into a negative person the last few years of his life. In many ways he had good reason and I know he was scared and mad, but it was non-stop constant and I felt like it only made things worse. I had to call his attention to it and one day I said I would point out every time he said something negative. Well, it was the whole day like every two minutes so he finally got it. He was better about it after that. Miss you, Dad!

    2. So How Sick Do You Get

      I have had to do this – I had a negative co-worker and just said “I’m sure you don’t realize it, but it seems like you have a negative slant on nearly everything we talk about! Is there anything you _enjoy_?!”

      They didn’t realize they were a total downer, and it changed almost overnight.

    3. Not So NewReader

      I have narrowed it to,”Quick find something positive to say!”

      It’s sad watching them struggle for that positive thing.

    4. The New Wanderer

      I said something similar (on email) to a close relative who was being relentlessly negative about things concerning my upcoming wedding (they were involved in planning). Basically I said “I want you to be involved but I don’t want to hear anything else like X and Y again, chill out or you can just attend as a guest.”

      It worked!

  15. Checkert

    I had a coworker who would bandwagon complain, show up to work with a nasty attitude, just generally was not fun to be around a lot of the time. I started classically ‘training’ her using positive reinforcement. Basically, if she was being positive and not complaining, I would gladly respond and engage in conversation. However, if she was complaining or just being negative, I would be silent/ignore her. Obviously not to the point of rudeness, I would answer questions or speak when necessary but I would not entertain any speech beyond what was immediately called for. It worked surprisingly well! I’m not sure whether she ever picked up what I was doing but I feel I should caveat that this is likely most effective with someone who picks up social cues.

  16. Jerry

    Happy grump was the exact right way to describe this. There are many people who don’t find negative topics to be very… well… negative. It sounds like venting, but really personal drama is just fun for her. It really sounds like she’s just relating to you, the way someone would talk about last night’s Bachelor, basketball game, or whatever. Because it isn’t emotionally charged for her, you don’t have to redirect her, you can just tell her. The same way you could say, “I don’t actually watch the Celtics” you can say, “Oh man, high drama kind of stresses me out, where did you get your shoes though/how was your vacation/how bout them Knicks” and it wouldn’t be received as any kind of betrayal or emotional abandonment, just a pivot to a mutually enjoyed topic.

    1. Margaery Moth

      Yes! This is smart and so true of some people, myself included (though not to this degree…but stressful topics are sometimes just conversation for me).

    2. Seeking Second Childhood

      “High drama stresses me out, how ’bout them Mets?” This would work on me when I’m backsliding into full-on Eeyore.

    3. Ice and Indigo

      I think one reason people take more pleasure in sharing negative stuff than their audience does in hearing it is that if you’re the grumper, you’re in control of the negativity. If you’ve had enough, you can just stop talking. You also get to be the person saying what’s good and bad in the world; your opinions are holding the floor, and anyone who challenges them is being ‘unsupportive’, so you’re in control in general.

      The captive audience, on the other hand, doesn’t control when the conversation ends, and is forced into a reactive position where any opinion they have about what’s good and bad revolves around the grumper. So it’s really not surprising the grumpers enjoy it more!

  17. Elizabeth West

    Ooh, about to go out and rake (ugh! lol) after lunch so I’ll listen then.

    I kind of was this person for a while, until I learned to disengage and do my work as well as I could without becoming emotionally invested in it. At OldExjob, it was so frustrating I basically just had to stop giving a shit.

  18. Myrin

    Holy wow, Alison, this has definitely been my favourite episode so far – I enjoyed myself a lot listening to it, probably because it was easy to tell that you and the OP got on really well and that she, despite being understandably frustrated, still managed to see the situation with a great deal of humour.

    (I also realised that I definitely have “happy grump” tendencies, which is weird because I’m also extremely positive and optimistic (so much so that many many people have remarked on it before). I’d never do what the coworker does and if I’m talking about negative stuff, I’m quick to follow up with something like “but I’m doing X to change it right now” or “but I’m sure it’ll take a turn for the better” or similar, but I’m totally recognising myself in your story about your mum. I couldn’t even tell you the reasoning behind it, it’s just how I’m wired, and the point about it being a form of storytelling definitely resonated with me – I’m a bit of a jokester IRL and that works weirdly well with Tales of Exasperation, but I’ll definitely keep this podcast in mind so as to not get carried away.)

    I also loved OP’s deadpan “She might be annoyed by this but I’m kinda okay with that”. Definitely an attitude more people should adopt!
    And I’m also a fan of the half-jokey “Hey, this is a negativity-free zone!” – I hope OP implements that and reports back since she seemed really enthusiastic about that option.

    1. BookCocoon

      Yes, today’s episode was great to listen to! I loved how thorough the caller was in detailing all the things she’d tried and how upbeat she was about the options Alison suggested.

  19. CouldntPickAUsername

    God sounds like my mom sometimes. She loves to complain. I’ve even stopped helping her midchore telling her that if she doesn’t stop complaining I was done helping her and just refused to listen to it anymore.

  20. montecristo1985

    Not really the same thing, but a coworker and I noticed that we were being a bit negative about our jobs and the daily frustrations that we have to deal with, so we added a “days without whining” count on our white board. We still complain to each other, but it makes it easier for one of use to throw the breaks on the other if we get out of hand.

    1. Seeking Second Childhood

      I just jotted “DWW 1” on my whiteboard small enough that I hope no one will ask. Goal is to make it through the day and add another mark tonight on my way out.

  21. copier queen

    My office is right next door to someone who is universally known as a negative and anxiety-ridden. And she’s long-winded, too. And wears lots of blue eye shadow. I could go on. My boss had contractors install this huge glass wall between her area and my area…because co-worker is gossipy and repeats things my boss says, which aren’t supposed to be repeated. Now I can’t see her or hear co-worker.
    Honestly, I’m a bit sad, because as aggravating as she is, I think I’m the only person she really has to talk to. And I realized that she’s really the only person I talk to at work, too.
    I might open the glass door sometimes ;)

  22. Utoh!

    I think part of the issue is allowing her to start in the first place…don’t ask her how she is, just say hi and go back to your work…get headphones, take a walk if/when she gets to be too much, or actually tell her that you don’t want to discuss the latest doom and gloom with her.

    I have a coworker who walks around with not only a black cloud over his head, but a chip on his shoulder. Our team (there are 5 of use) were working together in a conference room, all doing the SAME EXACT THING, and he was the only one who was complaining. I told him that we were all doing the SAME EXACT THING and were not having any issues… When it comes right down to it, the least common denominator not the job, not the weather, or a myriad of other (fake) issues, it’s the *attitude* of the individual spouting the negativity.

    Don’t provide any semblance of an audience, and if they talk to themselves, that’s what the headphones are for! :)

  23. JSPA

    I remember a guy who would shut this down cold (but most people probably couldn’t pull it off, and there are real downsides if it gets reported secondhand the wrong way…so warn your boss if you’re going to try it). Might have come from a TV show (this would have been around 2000, so something from the 90’s?)

    Every complaint, he’d listen to for a while, then brightly, with interest and a small smile, say, “Neat! It sounds like cancer.” interspersed with, conversationally, “Hm, yup, sounds like cancer.” And, musingly, “Cancer…definitely cancer.” And, “have you considered cancer?”

    Roof leaks, rent-seeking landlords, rent-avoiding tenants, shockingly bad food, computers down, boss schedules over your vacation…same answer. (While medical problems were not categorically exempt, I never heard him do it with something that could actually be a sign of cancer.)

    Depending on the person, it either made them laugh, or freaked them out. Either way, the negative news stream stopped. Of course, if someone’s dealing with actual cancer this could be the route to a quick firing.

    I’m sure you can craft your own off-kilter response. “Grammy always said it was poltergeists.” “Have you considered poltergeists?” “Ah, poltergeists again.” “Neat, poltergeists.” Keep the tone sympathetic, but the responses too monotonous and weird to be ignored.

    1. Lettuce Mutton Tomato

      Just picturing this is cracking me up. I love your substitution of “poltergeist” as “cancer” might be a little touchy. Of course, I have a co-worker who seems to believe in that sort of stuff so I would probably wind up freaking her out with that suggestion.

    2. TootsNYC

      part of what makes this brilliant is that he never deviates from the script–it’s not cancer one day and poltergeists the next.

      The repetition actually makes people realize that THEY are being repetitive.

  24. Two cents

    Sorry you have to put up with this. I had 2 little ideas. 1) It sounds like she’s a nice person and the negativity is just how her neurons fire. It might help to try to garner her sympathy towards your plight with statements like, “Can we talk about something else? This conversation makes me so sad.” “We need to change the subject; this is really bringing me down.” You wouldn’t be trying to out-sad her. A truly nice person will make the effort if she thinks that she is having a negative effect on you. 2) You don’t need to play music. Just wear the headphones as if they are earplugs. It’s the universal symbol for “I don’t want to talk. To anyone, not just you.” You can get free white noise/spa music/whale song on the internet or a little white noise machine to plug headphones into if you think it’s noticeable that you’re not playing anything. It can be very soothing.

    1. Not So NewReader

      I had a friend I used to tell them, “I really need to talk about positive things.”
      On the second instance, I would go with, “Let’s find positive topics.”

    2. Seeking Second Childhood

      She says in the podcast that she has to be on the phone a lot so headphones aren’t usually a good option. :(

  25. Dankar

    My supervisor is a bit like this, though she tempers all of the debbie downer-ism with humor. I actually find it refreshing (though I know colleagues do not), because we work in higher ed administration, which tends towards “Everything is great and we’re accomplishing so much ALL THE TIME!!” messaging.

    She used to be faculty, who are much more likely to be blunt about the state of things than staff are, which is where I think this disconnect comes from. Hearing her very negative take on things makes me feel like I’m not living in some alternate, sunshiney dimension.

    1. MissDisplaced

      Ugh! God for me the whole “Everything is Awesome! Everything is great when you’re part of a team!” mentality makes me want to stab my eyes out. It comes off as being so phony.

    2. Margaery Moth

      Hahahaha oh no, this is me. I commented upthread that I can be guilty of conversing about negative topics because to me it’s emotionally neutral. But it’s more like this…cheery jokes about shitty observations. I also cannot stand relentlessly positive messaging and since the OP needs to clean and vacuum away the negativity I get the sense that these people are on two opposite ends of the spectrum.

      1. Ice and Indigo

        I suspect what these opposites have in common is that they don’t allow anyone else emotional freedom of movement – you HAVE to be as negative/positive as the speaker because they won’t let you turn the mood even slightly in another direction. That’s maddening for any mood.

  26. Celeste

    I won’t have a chance to listen to the podcast until tonight, but IME this is just the way some people are in the world. They might have been brought up by negative parents, or they might just have this as their temperament. For some reason only the negative things are what interests them, so they try to bond with everyone else over them thinking we all agree. It’s very hard on people who are doing fine and who are even happy in life! I think you just have to consider that to her it’s normal. Sometimes all you can do is compare yourself and be glad you are the way you are.

  27. Falling Diphthong

    Spouse and I used to have post-dog-walk conversations like so:
    Walker: We met Pup today.
    Homebody: Oh? What did Pup’s mom complain about?

    Because every time she would complain. It was her only mode of communication. Some people are just like that, and I don’t know how to turn it off.

  28. Meißner Porcelain Teapot

    “I’d especially love your advice on ways to say “Hey, you’re so negative that I actually dread your visits and I never wanted to be your therapist” in a way that won’t hurt her feelings/is socially acceptable.”

    There isn’t. Sorry, OP, but there is no way to address anything that is so integral to someone’s personality without them feeling at least a little bit hurt, because it DOES hurt when somebody criticizes something that is a big part of you. The good news is that is not your job to coddle her feelings and that you can be assertive about your boundaries without being a jerk about it (politeness and directness are not mutually exclusive, contrary to what socialization in our modern patriarchy may have taught you), so here is your magical script for the next time she starts being constantly negative:

    “Hey Jane, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed…” – Rhis is you giving her the benefit of the doubt–polite!
    “… but nearly every single thing you ever say is negative or complaining…” – This is you telling her that it’s the behavior that’s the problem, not Jane herself–direct!
    “… and it is really stressing me out. It’s making me feel like I’m your therapist and that’s not a role I want to play.” – This is you telling her how this problem is affecting YOU and why YOU have a vested interest in her changing her behavior–direct!
    “… Would you kindly save the negative talk for another time and place that’s not here in my office?” – This is you telling her what you would like her to do–direct and polite!
    “That doesn’t mean I need you to be a ball of perfect sunshine when you’re here, but the /constant/ negativity is making it really hard for me to work and even talk with you.” – This is you emphasizing that you’re not asking for the moon on a string–direct and polite!

    And then let her have whatever reaction she will have to that. She’ll probably be hurt. She might get angry or defensive, but my guess is that she genuinely does not realize that (mutual) venting is not acceptable socialization by your standards. She has no crystal ball or telepathic powers (at least not that we know of). She won’t understand that there’s a problem unless you tell her about it.

    After that, watch how it goes the next time. Will she moderate her negativity or at least try to do so? Will she apologize if you say “Jane, you’re doing the constant negativity thing again” or will she get all defensive? At that point, if you don’t see any reasonable improvement, I would contact her boss, because if I were her superior, I would /want/ to know if my employee is literally stressing out other people with her behavior.

    And to conclude, a fun fact: I’m usually a very blunt person who vents a lot (both in terms of complaining and swearing). My office is very casual and our job conditions are less than ideal, so most people don’t take offense to that, but some do. And if someone does, I gladly moderate myself around them, because I don’t want to be a jerk and I respect that different people have different levels of tolerance for bluntness and venting. Hell, when I was working a job that very much did NOT allow swearing and required lots of smiling, I did not swear at all and I smiled a lot. I reserved the venting for when I talked to other people with the same preferences. So if your bookkeeping co-worker is an otherwise kind person, politely but directly telling her that her behavior is causing a problem will not be the end of the world, but the beginning of the solution.

  29. Clever Name

    This was fascinating for me to read/listen to because I once shared an office with a woman very much like this. Like the letter writer’s coworker, my office mate was a nice person, except she was unrelentingly negative and spewed that negativity everywhere. It was awful and it affected my mental health; I might have been able to handle it better if my husband at the time weren’t also a black pit of emotional despair and I just couldn’t handle listening to constant negativity and complaining both at work and at home. I solved my problem (at work) by volunteering to move offices when the opportunity arose. (I solved my problem at home by getting a divorce.)

  30. Essess

    I have shut it down with a coworker in the past by saying “I’m really trying to work on keeping a positive attitude at work and work on complaining less. Thanks!”

  31. Mimmy

    Ohhhhh lord, I’m pretty sure I’m guilty of what the OP is writing in about. My office mate is the same way. It’s at the point where I’m having a hard time seeing the good parts. I’ll definitely listen to this later for the tips!

  32. Meera

    There are some great tips about responses above, but I have some avoidance ideas to interleave with the more direct responses.

    Headphones: Would it be possible to do headphones and music on your phone while also being ready to take calls as needed? Even temporarily forwarding calls to your mobile just for those times when she’s in, so you know you won’t miss a call?

    Unspecified focus work that needs to be done: even if you don’t have any actual urgent work work right that day; could you be doing an online course or be writing something up (an office wiki or guide) or watching YouTube tutorials about How To X (where X is some job-related skill)? Or none of those things really, but just be working on your fanfic or meal plan or budget or something; but whatever it is; it’s something you need to concentrate on In Silence Right Now. And coincidentally, the JUST released this weeks tutorial or whatever, right when she’s due in!

  33. Not So NewReader

    Some people are so low on energy the only way they can move through their day is by focusing on all the things that are wrong. You might try asking her how she sleeps at night, it’s probably not good.
    We get energy from the foods we eat and from adequate rest. With this in mind it sounds like she has not had a good night’s sleep since a year beginning with 19xx.
    It’s interesting that she likes to talk about your diet. Maybe you can use that as a foundation for positive conversations, perhaps sharing recipes and ideas. Maybe make her a serving of one of your more favorite things and bring it in for her.

    I agree with other posters who thought that home/family life might be a problem. Often times when people are discussing upsetting matters and we cannot console them that is because the actual upset has not been mentioned yet. This is all to say, you have tried to help her calm down, she is not calming down so there is a possibility that she has not yet mentioned the core problem or what is actually wrong.
    This can work into a good card to have up your sleeve. Let’s say one day she blurts out “X is wrong with my life!!!” You can be prepared with a soft talk about how that is so sad, and you are so sorry. “But I lack the quals and I have not had similar life experiences to help you with such a devastating problem. Let’s take a minute and look online to get some ideas where you could get the support you need to get through this.”

    People really do not see themselves. A while ago, a friend became miffed because she figured out that people perceive her as sickly. I said to my friend, “but you DO have a lot of health issues”. She was taken aback for a moment. Then she said, “But that is not the first thing I want people to see about me.” I knew I did not have to say too much more because she was fully able to work from that point onward.
    Your solution might be to simply tell her if an opportunity comes up, “Well, it’s true. You do not seem happy with life.” Not everything has to be a long conversation.

  34. Floating Shift

    I’m looking forward to listening to this podcast tomorrow — but the description of “Think like an energetic Eeyore who’s a middle aged woman” made me laugh. I have an aunt who is a very intelligent, very interesting woman who has led an interesting life . . . but she’s what I call a “positive negative person.” She’ll have a smile on her face, but just about everything out of her mouth is a complaint. Our family get-togethers with her have been few, mostly because people have moved around and it can be logistically tricky. However, she drives other people in the family nuts because they don’t know how to keep responding to her and it gets exhausting. She’s always been like this and it’s a shame because she really is whip-smart and has had some amazing experiences.

    I appreciate the comments here. Some people I work with tend to be like this woman: negative about almost everything, negative in a cheerful way, just plain negative, etc. Now, I have some ideas on how to better deal with that instead of just trying to avoid these people.

  35. RUKiddingMe

    I haven’t been able to listen yet so I’m commenting only based on the letter.

    OP: Stop asking her how she is/how it’s going/etc. Never ask her that again. It won’t stop her complaining all together, but at least you didn’t give her an opening.

    Second, go on tell her that her negativity about everything under the draught friendly sun is bringing you down and you can’t take it anymore. Tell her you feel like you’ve been conscripted into a non-consensual therapist role, which is “way above” your pay grade and which you wouldn’t be interested in anyway, so she needs to stop.

    Notice I didn’t use “please,” or “can/will you,” or “do you think you can,” or any other such language. Tell her what you need her to do period. You can be polite about it, but be firm.

    I know all of that wold make some people uncomfortable saying, so grain of salt and all that.

  36. Sherz

    I carpool with this person!! Imagine being trapped in a car every morning and evening.

    (And, no, I don’t have a lot of other options. Long story… but this is the safest way for me to get to work.)

    1. Seeking Second Childhood

      Can you set up something where you control the conversation/quiet/music when it’s your turn to drive? (Or are you in the situation I was in all those years ago where a carless co-worker was buying me gas as the driver? That was hard on me – I wanted to drive quietly and listen to the radio but he was a Morning Person who told me AFTER I asked for quiet that it was his job as a passenger to keep me entertained. He just didn’t get it. I was already trying to figure out how to end the arrangement when I found out there WAS a bus between his place & our work, so that flipped me over the edge and I talked to my boss about changing start times “to avoid the traffic”, and told my passenger sorry I couldn’t commute together anymore because my start time changed and he was on a scheduled shift.)

  37. Seeking Second Childhood

    I’m an Eeyore by nature. But long ago I had my eyes opened when I shared a house with a one-upping bigger Eeyore for a month. I did something like the Shamu article suggested — reward small behaviors with animated conversation, and redirected by either starting work on the subject being complained about (messy kitchen) or changed the subject to something more positive (I saw my first robin this morning.) By the end of the month she was much more pleasant to deal with — and I realized that I probably was too. I’d gotten out of the vent habit because anything negative I said would just set her off.
    I backslide constantly, but I warned my husband and I get the occasional quiet “you’re doing it again!”

  38. CM

    What I liked about this episode is that they acknowledged that people have different affect styles — it’s not just two. There are different ways of skewing negative and different ways of skewing positive. I definitely skew negative, and I thrive the most when I paired with someone who’s negative in the same way, but I can get along with certain types of positive personalities as well. There are also certain types of positive personalities I really dislike, and certain types of negative personalities I really dislike. Everyone’s different.

    Anyway, I don’t think it’s fair to ask someone to change their personality because you don’t enjoy it, but I do think it’s fair to ask them to change the subject or talk to you less in a workplace environment.

    What I actually came here to say is that I just watched a YouTube video that touches on some of the same things from a different perspective. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-X0XI9qkE1k

    Basically, one of the people is saying, “I complain to people over text all day, but I don’t see any of those complaints as being really heavy, and some of them, I think, are funny” which is a lot like me. The coworker in the call sounds like a different type of negative personality, but it’s interesting to think about the differences.

  39. Jennifer Juniper

    I would see this as an opportunity to practice expressing empathy. NOTE: I’m not implying OP is deficient in that skill. When confronted by negativity, I say stuff like “That sounds frustrating” as a way to validate them and help them feel better. Maybe Eeyore is looking for simple validation. She could also suffer from clinical depression.

    1. Ice and Indigo

      Speaking as one who’s had depression … depression doesn’t mean everyone around you has to validate you. And it certainly doesn’t mean people have to make themselves miserable rather than challenge you: OP says plainly that this is wearing her down.

      There’s an obligation around people with mental illnesses, but it stops at ‘Don’t be a jerk about it’; ‘Sacrifice your own wellbeing over it’ is outside OP’s job description!

    2. Adminx2

      But even that is enabling their negativity and engaging, which sucks your own supply. Empathy works when the other person is engaged in creating a productive and mutual experience. Otherwise it’s wiser to shield it away and let them be on their merry.

    3. Jennifer Thneed

      I just listened to a short story that touched on exactly this idea. Not going to try to summarize, but the title is “The Cell Phones” (by Karen E Bender) and I heard it on the podcast called “LeVar Burton Reads” (which is exactly what it sounds like: LeVar Burton reading short stories, with very minimal discussion at start and end).

  40. Byron

    I remember someone like this, we called him ‘The Vortex of Misery’

    That said, he was also very senior so we couldn’t really do much about it, I was just glad when I got to leave a year later.

Comments are closed.