my coworker is a Zoom pest

A reader writes:

I am struggling with a colleague and hope you can help me. “Gina” and I work closely together as part of a small sub-team within a larger team, and I have no problems with the professional side of our relationship.

My problem is that she is becoming really overly familiar and takes up a lot of my time with personal chat, and she’s often very negative and critical about other colleagues/events in our workplace. We have a hybrid working arrangement and when we are both in the office she constantly interrupts me while I’m working with our chat program turned on. It’s pushing me to work from home more to avoid her, but when I am at home she video calls me multiple times a day.

Gina often says the reason she’s initiating a conversation is related to work, but once she has me she will divert onto complaints and general negativity – like how furious she is at being accidentally left out of a meeting invitation two months ago (yes, really) or her disapproval of what our director is wearing at an event (yes, really – and our director looked completely professional, for what it’s worth).

I have tried pushing back when she’s being negative and telling her I disagree, but this only makes her more negative. I now generally just sit there and don’t respond and let her go until she runs herself out, but this still takes up a lot of my time and emotional energy. I find her really draining and I don’t know how to politely tell her that I only want to talk about work.

I feel bad about this as I have more friendly relationships with other colleagues, where we do spend time on video calls just chatting, and this is what Gina is seeking. However I just don’t enjoy her company, and while I’m happy to be friendly and collegial, I don’t want to get dragged into these draining conversations every day.

I would really appreciate any advice on how to set some boundaries with her.

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 101 comments… read them below }

  1. Robert E.O. Speedwagon*

    Yeah, this is a pretty cut-and-dry case of “start setting boundaries, see if you need to enforce them” that many other LWs have asked Alice about in the past. Hopefully Gina gets the hint, and if not, you have the archives for what strategies to fall back on should things start to go south. Best of luck, OP!

    1. GammaGirl1908*

      Yep. LW seems to feel that telling Gina no is rude, and wants a way to just barely send a whisper of a hint that Gina will get.

      It’s not rude to say no. It’s only rude to say no rudely. In addition, sometimes you have to go to a place that feels rude if the person doesn’t get it with softer messaging. You may need to stop hinting and say it. It is acceptable to tell Gina that you aren’t available to chat / have to get back to work / are in a busy period / need to cut back on socializing. It’s also fine to tell her that she seems to have a negative outlook, and you can’t be the receptacle for that any more. Use your words.

      1. Sloanicota*

        Also, it’s kind of ruder, in a way, to let someone go on and on at you while you secret loathe and resent them. That’s … not nice! Presumably if Gina knew you felt this way she wouldn’t want to have these conversations. So this is a case where being honest is also kinder.

        1. Just Another Starving Artist*

          Yes, this! There is a difference between being nice and being kind. Get too hung up on the former and you’ll usually fail at being the latter.

        2. Zelma*

          It sounds as if LW is letting Gina go on out of an overabundance of fairness and a distaste for hurting her feelings. I don’t think we need to turn that into her being unkind to Gina by not calling out obviously antisocial behavior that any working adult could reasonably be expected to avoid. Tolerating it politely is probably not to the LW’s benefit, but it’s not “not nice”. GINA’s not nice. Gina’s sniping about the director’s appearance behind her back. I doubt very much that Gina would just be floored to discover that her constant intrusion is unwelcome. The Ginas of the world are are boundary pushers, and they capitalize on other people’s reflexive good manners very consciously. Turning this back on LW strikes me as very odd.

        3. Mongrel*

          “Presumably if Gina knew you felt this way she wouldn’t want to have these conversations.”

          I’ve met enough people like this to say that’s a brave assumption.
          The talker doesn’t care about you otherwise they’d already have noticed that it’s not a conversation. They want someone to talk TO, everything else is irrelevant. Trying to voice an opinion is rude in their eyes because you’re interrupting them.

      2. Purple Cat*

        It’s not rude to say no. It’s only rude to say no rudely.
        This needs to be an AAM pillow.

  2. Warrior Princess Xena*

    The only thing I’d really like to add to Alison’s excellent advice is that it’s OK to be bothered both by the constant video calls/chatting and by the complaining as two separate things. I’ve had Gina’s where they haven’t been complaining all the time but the amount of my time they took up is enough that I find them draining or distracting from work. You don’t have to be on ‘social’ Zoom calls if you don’t want to.

    1. supertoasty*

      +1. Zoom notifications may be easier to “ignore” than physical interruptions prima facie, but they can still add up, especially over the course of a long day.

      1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        And at least in person, a reasonable coworker could see that you’re in the middle of something and choose not to interrupt. (Though the Ginas of the world may very well interrupt anyway). That’s just not possible with Zoom/chats.

    2. Anonym*

      I was thinking just this morning what a nightmare it would be if colleagues started just video calling out of the blue… the most disruptive of all plausible disruptions.

      Totally agree that both of these are things that it’s ok to object to! I like that Alison’s advice starts with one – needing to focus on work – but adds in the other, slightly heavier element if needed. I’ve had to talk to a colleague about complaining before, and she did take it well. We’re close friends, which made it easier in some ways and harder in others, but she’s a very principled and caring person and didn’t realize how draining it was for me to hear and engage with and did limit it (and now asks ahead if I have the bandwidth for a venting session). For some of us out there, hearing complaints and venting just plops all that misery right into our brains and it stays there.

      Good luck with Gina, OP! May the boundaries stick quickly and smoothly.

  3. KSharpie*

    I had a coworker like this. Unfortunately the way I found that worked was to answer his work questions flatly, then “I need to get back to X task.”
    In theory you could try using “I will not let you disparage coworkers/events/whatever to me. You need to find a more productive outlet.”

    1. Anonym*

      It’s too gentle for some folks, but I’ve had luck following the request with “Sorry, I’m just not the right audience for this.” It has shut down argument / asking why / back and forth pretty well. Could be an intermediate step before the firm line, if that’s what OP prefers.

        1. KofSharp*

          Apparently I have insanely bad Resting B Face so me being anything but super bright and sunny is… extremely noticeable.

      1. practical necromancy*

        Last year I started using “I’m not the right audience for this” at work and in my personal life with great results! I very much recommend it. I’m not sure what it is about this phrasing, but I think it indicates: 1. Its fine that you have these thoughts and feelings, 2. …but I’m not the person to bring this too. I haven’t had anyone question me on it yet, most just accept and change the subject, and I even used it with a guy who was hitting on me to great effect.

        1. Clisby*

          I much prefer this to ““I’ve got to be straight with you. I’m really drained by this much complaining. For the sake of my mental health, I can’t be the person you vent to anymore.”

          If I were Gina’s target, my mental health wouldn’t have anything to do with it. I’d just want her to shut up.

          1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

            I agree that talking about mental health seems rather over the top, as if Gina had to power to truly drive OP crazy. But usually if you want someone to shut up it’s because their noise is getting to you. Enough of it would indeed drive you crazy.

        2. Very Social*

          Ooh, I’m going to have to remember that one. It would have been nice to have in my pocket a couple years ago with a coworker who was going on about a prejudice she had against a certain group of people.

          And I love that it worked on a guy who was hitting on you.

    2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Or some variation of telling them it’s weird that they care so much about what [colleague] was wearing.

      One comment that stopped me in my tracks as a teenager when I was being judgmental was “who appointed you hall monitor?” (It was offered gently by a relative who loves me). Obviously, the answer was “nobody.”

    3. ThatGuy*

      To add to this, if Gina says that the call is about a work question but then initiates the call and immediately goes into chat/complaining, I recommend interrupting her and saying, “Sorry to interrupt but I’m in the middle of something and need to get back to it. What was the work question you needed to ask me about?” If Gina can’t immediately articulate it, I’d follow up with, “No problem! I’ve got to go but you can message me in the chat program if it you think of it. Bye!” And then end the call. I suspect there’s a bait and switch where OP expects a work call, ends up getting social chat, and is afraid to interrupt the social chat to move the conversation to the work issue. OP needs to know that it’s ok to cut Gina off and move things along.

  4. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    “I choose not to do my complaining over an employer-owned network on company time. And I’ve got to get back to the TPS report.”

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      I’ve done that, the surprised Pikachu face, but I learned it here. Alison’s look confused, “whoa, I don’t think you meant to be talking about that here.”

  5. Unkempt Flatware*

    I’ve had to use this one a lot…”I’m not the complaint department and I can’t listen to this anymore”

  6. irene adler*

    Might try to let Gina know, right at the beginning of the conversation, that you only have 3 minutes to spare to answer her work-related question. Then provide your response and sign off (“Gotta go! My 3 minutes are up! Bye!”).

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Great suggestion. And I figure it’ll probably feel less rude to LW than ignoring calls.

    2. VP of Monitoring Employees’ LinkedIn and Indeed Profiles*

      The next time, make it 2 minutes.

      Then one minute.

      Then, “Can’t talk. Working on the Hasenpfeffer account.”

  7. Sloanicota*

    Captain Awkward has a term for this, being a “grey rock.” If you have to talk to Gina, be boring to vent to, do not provide any encouragement or satisfaction, and make it a bit awkward for her – every time. I can be a bit of a gossip and there are certainly people who provide no incentive to dig in that I have learned much from when I need to project the same energy!
    Gina: is catty about boss’s outfit. Me (mildly): Oh, I thought it looked nice. Anyway, about those TPS reports …
    Gina: Tries to complain about coworkers. Me: Oh, I don’t know about that. Anyway, about those TPS reports …

    Some other good terms: “Huh, I’ve never noticed that, it doesn’t really strike me that way.” “Oh, I don’t really think so.” “Hm.”

    1. Washi*

      It’s also a good idea to mildly disagree and change the topic just to kinda protect yourself. What makes me nervous about this type of coworker is I don’t trust them not to then say stuff like “OP and I were noticing yesterday how unprofessional the director looks” or “OP also thought it was rude I got left out of that call.”

      Most likely Gina’s coworkers know what she is like but still, it’s in your best interest not to be more than professionally friendly to someone like this.

      1. Abby*

        This is a key point. As long as she moans to the OP she can claim they were both making the same points. ‘I and OP chat loads all the time about the issues. What are you meant to do after that? It could make the OP look bad.

      2. Artemesia*

        This has happened to me — someone falsely citing me as in agreement on something they were foolishly pursuing at work and that I certainly didn’t agree with them about. This alone is a good reason to not be accommodating of complainers — you will get tainted by association.

      3. Quiet Liberal*

        Oh my gosh, yes, yes, yes! This never occurred to me, but you are right! I hated working with people like this and usually would do just as LW does just to be kind. It seemed like even though I didn’t participate in the conversation, they just blather on and on wasting my time. Plus, I just hated to hear gossip about co-workers. Honestly, I’ve just been relieved when the whiner quit, was fired or moved on to another pair of ears. I’m ashamed of myself for not being more adult about it. Alison’s suggestions are perfect as is “I’m not the right audience for this” suggested above.

        1. abby*

          Don’t be ashamed! It is these people cornering us. It’s ok to say online ‘do this and do that’ but in real life it is much more complex.

    2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      I think one key piece of this approach is the subject change, bringing it back to work-related topics. Be boring/don’t feed into the gossiping, then redirect onto discussing anything that’s relevant to getting things done at work.

    3. Joielle*

      Yep, this is what I’ve been doing with my Gina-like coworker. She doesn’t video call me at home, THANKFULLY, but she does love to hijack conversations to complain about stuff (coming in to the office, having to wear not-jeans, meetings she thinks are pointless, whatever’s going on with her kid, the weather, etc etc). She also does this rude-but-as-a-“joke” thing that is so unprofessional and cringe-y. For whatever reason our boss does not seem inclined to ask her to reign it in, so I just started being the most boring person to her. It seems to help – and it definitely helps me emotionally detach from the situation. A lot of “hmmm” and “oh, I didn’t think so” and “I dunno, I thought it was fine.” Now that the interaction takes no effort from me, it bothers me less.

      Ultimately, I think she’s sort of a class clown type who needs a lot of attention, and is also ok but not great at her job and is insecure about it, and it all combines to make her an incredibly irritating person. The less I add fuel to the fire, the better. And I also don’t want people to think of me as her friend or start lumping us together, so yet another reason to not play along.

    4. pcake*

      That hasn’t worked for any of the Ginas I’ve worked with. They happily drown you in negativity and gossip without stopping, not requiring literally any input from the person they’re talking to. In fact, I doubt they even care or remember who the person is as long as they can spew their poison.

  8. Abby*

    This is a co-worker, not a manager. Talk to your own manager and explain what is happening (state explicitly that you can’t be productive because she takes up your time. No one can argue against that). When she starts in the office repeat over and over again ‘now I’ve addressed your question I need to get back to work’. I would go further. If you have to answer work questions state ‘please email me so I can deal with it when there is time’. Zoom calls should be easier. Set the agenda for the call and then when she starts moaning say ‘I need to get back to work’. If that doesn’t work it is time for a more explicit conversation. ‘I don’t have time to chat or the tasks won’t be complete If you are struggling talk to your manager’. Once you deal with her in a firm way it should start to reduce.

    1. anonymous73*

      If she’s never addressed it directly with her co-worker she needs to start there, not go directly to the manager.

      1. abby*

        I think she should go to the manager to give them a heads up. We have no idea what Gina will say. I’m not saying do something like start intervening. But it is good to get in there first and simply say to the manager ‘this is what is going on. This is how I plan to deal with it. What do you think?
        When she pushes back against Gina she won’t need to worry about a potential minefield.

  9. selling a spine*

    I can’t imagine letting someone walk all over me like this. Tell Gina you’re not accepting unscheduled calls anymore, and that all meetings going forward have to have an agenda. When she gets into her negatively spiral, interrupt her, and tell her you have to go but you welcome follow up questions via email.

    1. Anonym*

      People have varying levels of comfort with the potential tension caused by pushing back on others. Sounds like you and OP might be in different places on that spectrum. It’s also worth noting that in some teams, there’s a non-zero risk of blowback for setting such a firm line, as ridiculous as that blowback would be. (Pretty sure my team is one of them – I suspect my manager would have a panic attack if one of us did this… which would be silly, but such is life.) I think Alison’s advice manages that risk really well, giving OP the option to escalate while preserving their reputation.

      Definitely a “know your team/environment” kind of thing!

    2. LTL*

      > I can’t imagine letting someone walk all over me like this.

      This was unkind.

    3. animaniactoo*

      Some people were raised to think that all of those things are rude to do to other people, and are either born or created people-pleasers who have a lot of internalized discomfort with feeling that they have been rude by the standards they understand/were given.

      It’s not an overnight process to stop, and getting guidance on what’s reasonable to do and how to do it is a great step.

      1. Whine-oh Victims Anonymous*

        Yes, some us were punished as children by an enraged parent when we didn’t allow them to vent to their heart’s content.

    4. Dancing Donkey*

      Hey, maybe you can barter your spine for some perspective beyond your own personal experience of the world.

    5. Momma Bear*

      It also sounds to me like OP doesn’t want Gina to feel singled out when OP has a chattier relationship with others, but the difference seems to be personality and content. I like the idea to shut it down if it’s not work related and tell Gina that OP is “not the right audience for this.” Depending on the platform you can respond to a video with a chat “I am on a deadline – is this time sensitive?” or something to remind Gina that you don’t have time to *chat* but will talk about work.

    6. Selling a clue*

      Goodness, how odd to be proud of a failure of imagination. NB: being able to imagine a way of relating to the world different from your own is actually an important skill, and indicative cognitive flexibility.

  10. ecnaseener*

    I agree with 99% of the advice, just with that very last script I would not invoke your mental health. We know Gina is prone to negative gossip and has questionable boundaries, do not give her that ammo.

    1. Clisby*

      I said similar above. I didn’t see any evidence this was a problem for LWs mental health – it’s just annoying as hell. And if it has become a mental health problem, I sure wouldn’t tell Gina.

      1. justabot*

        Totally agree. I would not share anything about mental health to Gina. And it will also go right over Gina’s head that she is the “mental health” causing issue. Instead, she will probably insert herself even more and become even more overbearing and smothering, thinking she’s being helpful and supportive and a good friend. “How are you doing????????” “Take care of yourself girl!” “How was your day today???” “Do you want to go for a walk with me???” When it was just really a case of you annoy me, I’m not interested in chatting, we’re not really friends, and instead of setting a firm boundary, I actually invited MORE intimate connection by sharing with you about my personal mental health. Oy. I’d stay far away from that angle.

  11. LTL*

    Tbh I think it would be more of a long-term kindness to say what LW said in the letter. “I only want to talk about work.” That’s not impolite, its just direct.

    It’s harder because it seems more harsh than Alison’s scripts. But Alison’s scripts make it sound like OP is just busy instead of not wanting to be work friends. Sure, Gina will probably catch on sooner or later that it’s more of an excuse when she sees OP still chatting with others. But that’s… less good than being upfront.

    Not saying Alison’s scripts are *bad*. I just wanted to point out the kinder thing here is probably the thing that feels less nice.

    1. Clella*

      I disagree with this. The spectrum of Ginas is wide: many are are unpredictable, and some are very angry and even vindictive people. It’s far better to put a Gina off and be pleasant.

  12. Catabodua*

    Every now and again I wonder if I’m being an asshole by being so direct with other people. Then I read these kinds of letters and realize I’d never have this issue because I’d tell Gina she was being an emotional vampire and she needed to find a new victim.

    1. LizB*

      …I mean, if those are the exact words you’d use, you would kind of be being an asshole, or at least not fostering productive work relationships. You can make exactly the same point in professional language. (“I don’t want to hear this kind of complaining” or “I’m not the right audience for this” or “Stop calling me in order to vent” would all do the trick.)

    2. Clella*

      It’s entirely possible to avoid problems with Ginas while still cultivating a reputation as a blunt asshole, just FTR.

    3. meganNJ*

      I do wish letters said Where they are from, sometimes. Your answer seems fine for the northeast, as a NJ I could hear that from you and laugh and agree. Sometimes directness is a kindness, but people usually only use it for Your skirt is tucked into your pantyhose, or Oops lipstick on your teeth. But I like it all the time.

    4. MCMonkeyBean*

      Wow, that’s definitely not what “being direct” is, and yes you probably are being an asshole if you would jump straight to language that rude without ever trying to set boundaries in a polite and professional way first. There are miles and miles of middle ground here!

  13. animaniactoo*

    I haven’t read the answer yet, but this is where I think you stop the conversation when it takes a turn for the negative. “If there’s nothing else work related, I need to focus on what I’m working on. Is there anything else you need? Alright, catch you later!”

    The fact that you’re in the conversation does not obligate you to continue having it.

    And at some point, you may just want to say “I’m sorry, I don’t make a great complaint department. I think you need to talk to somebody else about this kind of stuff.” – if you say it in a kind of cheerful laughing at yourself tone and carry that through in attitude and words for whatever followup happens, it will likely be fine.

  14. Nina*

    Awww… I’m usually the Gina, and I find so disheartening when you mention you do have friends at work, just not this person. I mean, it’s totally me projecting there, but as someone who is super lonely (I’m autistic, so super hard to connect with people) I was kinda sad. That said, it is totally your right to not like her but I think it’s kinder if you set firm boundaries and make clear that you are not particularly keen on having the same level of interactions that she wants. It might be hurtful to her, but it is much kinder in the long term.

    1. learnedthehardway*

      It’s kind of you to be sad for Gina, but I’m guessing that you’re much more appropriate in your chit chat and comments about coworkers, and that you’re not taking up reams of your co-workers time with complaints about other co-workers, managers and the company.

      An idea – You might find it easier to engage with people if you get them to tell you about themselves / what their interests are – people like to talk about themselves, unless they’re really busy or introverted. Watch for opportunities, show genuine interest – and that will help you connect a bit more.

    2. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      Yes, according to the letter, Gina is very unhappy, critical and unpleasant. She is not failing to make friends, she is choosing not to make friends. The rest of the people have put her on an information diet. The only person answering her Zoom calls and not ending her in office monologues is OP. And if OP doesn’t act now, set boundaries, stick to them, she could snap or just go no contact and that would be unpleasant for everyone.

    3. JSPA*

      Being the odd person out is not under your (or my, or anyone’s) control.

      But being a hypercritical sad sack who endlessly re-litigates past slights? You, me, and Gina can all make a point to avoid that.

      If you’re not trashing people, nor monopolizing coworkers’ time, nor treating them as your sounding-board-cum-therapist-cum-social life… you’re lonely, but you’re not “the Gina.”

    4. LKW*

      I’m sorry you feel like the odd person out – but it doesn’t sound like you’re initiating a bitch-sesh every time you talk to your co-workers.

      Als0, tip for connecting with people – ask them about themselves “Did you do anything fun over the weekend?” is always a good one. They’ll gripe if the in-laws were over or they had to do a lot of yard work and you can sympathize or they’ll tell you how much fun they had and you can say ‘that’s great!’ and move on.

    5. Forgot My Name Again*

      I’m autistic too, and my department is basically me which only adds to the isolation. I am friendly, but not friends with my colleagues. I once had a temp working for me who within a month became best buddies with people in other departments which was a tough pill to swallow, watching someone accomplish something in weeks that I’d been trying to achieve for years. So you have my sympathy, but I agree with the other commenters that you don’t sound like a Gina at all.

  15. Just Another Starving Artist*

    It’s also okay to just tell people you disagree with their negativity. “I thought Colleague looked fine, was there anything else?” or “It was an accident, it was months ago, and I’m not interested in rehashing it,” are honestly perfectly valid and professional ways of shutting the conversation down. And this does seem like a situation where shutting down > gentle deflection.

    1. All the words*

      Agreed.

      Disclosure: I’m usually the Debbie Downer and I don’t want to be. Changing this is an endless work in progress. A little gentle push-back like the examples here would be good reminders that I need to pay more heed to how I’m presenting myself. Reorienting to a more positive mindset requires conscious effort for some of us.

      Gina may currently be totally satisfied with her negative self, but she may re-assess that if she gets some feedback that it’s really off-putting.

    2. MCMonkeyBean*

      OP said they have tried disagreeing with her negativity and that it made her even more negative.

  16. Purple Cat*

    I’m horrified at the thought of Gina springing unexpected video calls on you. I never answer those just based on principle. Even the “got a minute to talk” I typically reschedule for a specific time and let people know how much time I’m giving them.

    1. cubone*

      Yes! Also I wonder if you did this more often if Gina would lose interest by the time the scheduled talk came around..

    2. Meep*

      My former manager was a real treat with these stupid text messages like these. lol.

      Seriously in real-time:

      0:00 – Hi.
      0:30 – I have something I need to do that is urgent.
      5:00 – Are you available?
      10:00 – I will call in five.

      Calls me an hour later to complain about her boss. X_X

    3. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      I was looking for this thread. Is this a thing? You just zoom someone to chat? ok, I guess, we use Teams and I’ve called people with questions, so we can screen share.. but video? Why? Don’t nobody need to see nobody.
      And why is OP answering? It’s a phone call. You don’t have to answer your work phone. She can leave a message. Let her leave a message. If it’s to call her. Wait.

      1. River Otter*

        My manager is big on “half of communication is non-verbal.” I can see how people who lean into reading body language and expression might prefer video calls even for unplanned calls.
        I’m with you, though.

      2. KimberlyR*

        I have someone who always calls me on Teams on video and I don’t turn on my video when I answer. I used to but I realized she didn’t care so I stopped turning it on just for that. It’s so weird when people call with their video on for no reason but sometimes I answer with mine off and it seems to be fine.

    4. MCMonkeyBean*

      It sound like she might be asking first under a work-related pretext and then chatting about other stuff once the call gets going, but if that is the case OP still needs to just start saying “no I’m not available for a call, send me an email and I’ll take a look when I can.”

  17. anonymous73*

    I agree with Alison about setting boundaries and using work to get out of conversations, but you also need to tell her to stop with the negativity now, not wait until later. “I really need you to stop coming to me to complain all the time.” And stop answering every single ping of the instant message or video call. You’ve trained her to come to you at any time and vent. You need to be less available and re-train her to stop.

  18. Meep*

    As someone whose former manager used to do this (and more), I recommend not reacting at all to the gossip. When she starts stick to the script of “so why did you call?” and repeat until she gets the hint. If she doesn’t after the first couple of times say “right now isn’t a good time. Can I call you back at a better time?”

    It is definitely annoying because sometimes 4 hours of my work day were spent playing therapist to a person who literally doesn’t have a nice atom in her body and she would often only gossip with me so long as there wasn’t someone better to shit-talk coworkers to. (She would literally tell me she would call me back in 5 minutes and hang up on me to go talk to someone better.) I ended up having to screen her calls and only reply back when she left a voicemail. It wasn’t ideal as she was my boss, but this woman was exhausting I would’ve rather been fired.

  19. Gnome*

    My favorite is, “just a sec – was there something else you needed from me?” They say no. “In that case, I really need to get back to X.”. The just a sec is because you are cutting them off, but if they tend to segway into chatting, you can leave that out. Like, “How was your weekend?” “It was fine, thanks, but was there anything else you need from me before I get back to the Smith report?”

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      and in the case of:
      “oh, I just wanted to tell you about Mary’s outfit.”
      you can shut that down the same way.
      You don’t have to accept every invitation to every conversation. You can offer your regrets.

  20. Aarti*

    Great advice here. About what the director wore at the last meeting or whatever, I have been really clear to say “I don’t talk like that about other women, I want to support other women as much as I can, we need each other so much.” with a gentle smile. I don’t want to bash other women! Don’t we get enough of it? It’s even ok to say “You know, I feel I have been being too negative and really want to try to be a kinder person.” Or go with the “I only have 3 minutes” with a hard stop…but I find there’s value in gently telling people that *I* want to be kinder.

  21. JSPA*

    When coworker blathers: “Time out! Listen, I’m going to need to hang up and concentrate for the next two-three hours. If there is anything pressing, tell me in the next 60 seconds, or put it in an email.”

    By email: “I’m not a fan of video calls except to touch base on stuff that’s so time-sensitive that it needs instant feedback. I feel like you and I are getting sucked into water cooler chat… and it happens when you are mentally at the water cooler, but I’m not at a good spot for a mental break. Let’s have a standing 10 minute video call at 3 pm on tuesdays and Thursdays [or whenever], when we can both be in ‘general catch up mode,’ but otherwise lay off the calls except when instant feedback is strictly necessary.”

  22. Frank01*

    I have a “Gina” at work who constantly bickered, gossiped and demanded my ear about everything. After months of exhaustion, I finally spoke with our boss about it. She spoke with Gina, and then we had a leadership meeting with all the senior team members. It was awkward at first, but I finally got what I wanted… to get Gina to shut the heck up and leave me alone. I feel much better and more free to accomplish my tasks. I still see Gina as needy, self-centered and insecure, but at least now I don’t have to listen to her.

  23. JelloStapler*

    Had one of these in the past I started just giving them short answer or repeating “Can’t talk, sorry”. And then ignoring her standing in my door for 30 seconds waiting.

  24. Janet*

    I did what Alison recommends once with an annoying colleague and it worked fine, but it took a while. Whenever possible, I told my colleague I was swamped with work and suggested we catch up later, and then I kept putting it off. And then once in a while we’d have a quick conversation and I’d start by saying that I had a call in a couple of minutes, and then I’d jump away quickly. Eventually my work friend just found other people to talk to because I wasn’t a satisfying listener. The key was just breaking their habit of talking to me.

  25. Nancy*

    This post was a great comfort to me. On Sunday I finally told a friend that I was sorry, but could no longer handle her dumping on me. I never knew when she called if she would be nasty or nice. Oh boy, she went ballistic. She finally realized I meant my boundaries. Not work-related, yet it confirmed my decision and made me realize someone else dealt with something similar. Love “I’m not the audience for this.” Will be using it.

    1. allathian*

      I’ve had a lot of success with “I’m really not the right audience for this” in my social life.

      I’m a chatty introvert, and I enjoy spending time with the vast majority of my coworkers. I’m generally a fairly positive person, so I don’t vent or complain at work. I can sometimes say something a bit negative if I’m frustrated, but I don’t expect other people to do emotional labor for me at work. But even positive talk can be too much if someone else’s working to a tight deadline. Luckily I’m fairly good at reading people, so I can usually tell if someone wants me to stop talking even before they say anything. If I’m busy and someone wants to talk, I’m not shy about saying that, but then I’ll usually make a point of getting back to them later when I’m not so busy. I haven’t had to use “I’m too busy to talk now” as an excuse to avoid talking to someone I’d rather not talk non-work stuff with for a long, long time, and I’m very glad that’s the case!

  26. raida7*

    the gentlest way to approach this, if you don’t want to say “stop bothering me, damn you’re sucking the energy, stop calling me, i don’t want to chat with you, etc”
    Would be broaching her persistent negativity.

    You can do this with her/your manager or with her directly, from the perspective that it’s indicative that she’s unhappy at work, that the amount of time spent on it indicates she might be avoiding tasks or interacting with other people, that she feels unappreciated, etc.

    And using the negativity as a diving board into how it impacts you directly, how it takes up productive time, how you feel more negative about work, tired, etc.

    So it’s concrn for her, plus a statement that your wellbeing needs to be considered.

    1. allathian*

      Going to her manager would be overstepping, I think. Addressing it with her first by asking her to stop the gossip and the negative venting is the first step. If that doesn’t help, the LW can take it up with their manager. Say, if the LW intends to stop answering Gina’s every Zoom call, giving a heads-up to the manager could help stop potential complaints about the LW being unresponsive before they start. Obviously how effective or safe this is likely to be depends a lot on the team culture and on the LW’s relationship with their manager, which has to be pretty good for something like this to work…

  27. Beth*

    All of the scripts Alison offers are good in-the-moment responses. But it’s also okay to address the pattern up front! You can tell Gina, “I don’t like to engage in negative talk at work, so I’m going to be opting out of those conversations going forward. Let’s keep it positive when we chat, okay?” Or, “I’m getting really busy lately and don’t have time for a lot of break room chats. When you need something work-related from me, of course reach out, but I wanted to give you a heads up that I need to cut way back on video calls and slack chatting and other social time from now on.”

    When she ignores you–which, it sounds like she will, from the way you describe her–interrupt her gossip venting, tell her “Like I said the other day, I need to not talk like this at work anymore. Did you need anything else work-related from me?” and then leave the call unless she really does have a work related topic to discuss. She’s going to hate this; that’s fine and not your problem. You did tell her, after all.

  28. KimberlyR*

    I have an energy-vampire coworker who complains more than she works. I like her and we used to work in a tiny office together (only the 2 of us in our branch.) I had tried a form of “I’m finding that my complaining and venting too much about work is bringing my mental energy down. I’m going to stop complaining and listening to other people’s vent sessions for my own well-being” and that helped for awhile but then she got bad about it again. Now that we’re permanently remote, if I see her call coming in, I don’t answer. Then I message something to her about being on the phone/in a meeting/staying in the zone and not answering calls at this time and ask her to just let me know in the chat what she need. It’s harder for that kind of person to get their complaining satisfaction in that format so usually I get the work question/request with minimal venting and I can keep the tone light and cheerful so she doesn’t think I don’t like her. It seems to work pretty well.

  29. Despachito*

    I think the kindest thing would be to let Gina directly know where is the problem, just like it was described in the original post.

    I also know that this is easier said than done, and I often wonder how easily and clearly it is spelled in the original posts, but how difficult it is to say it to the person concerned.

    I suspect I was a “Gina” more than once, and what worked most for me was 1) if the other person directly told me what was the problem and set boundaries that were clearly visible for me, and 2) their other interactions with me remained warm and kind. The worst thing for me was to feel the person is somehow cross with me but I was not certain why.

    Every time when someone told me I was annoying I was mortified, so I do not think you can totally avoid this part, but perhaps if the annoyed person sets the boundaries early and not stew in their own juice for weeks or months, it would also help because they would be more open to point 2) above? I think that if this goes on long enough, the annoyed person may develop a BEC allergy to the annoying person and it can be more difficult to be kind to them then.

  30. Forgot My Name Again*

    I have had conversations like this in the past and managed to wangle my way through to the other side. With my Gina, I would be there for the work-related stuff and only that. As soon as it started descending into rant territory, I would put on a puzzled expression and say “uh, what does this have to do with [the work thing you originally claimed to want to talk about]?”. If it didn’t get back on track, I’d say “I’m sorry, I’m really busy,” and a few conversations like this were enough to make them accept the new situation. Hope you find a way to set your boundaries without feeling guilty!

  31. Medusa*

    I had this co-worker. Unfortunately, I was completely uncomfortable setting boundaries because of some other (incredibly toxic) dynamics happening in my workplace. She was *awful*. She left shortly before I did, and even though it meant more work for me, I was SO happy that she was gone. The place I work now doesn’t have this same toxic dynamic so I feel a lot more comfortable setting boundaries.

  32. Exploited Wage Slave*

    I once worked for a family owned business with an HQ and several satellite offices across the country. The founder was 1st in command, his wife 2nd and their daughter 3rd, all working out of HQ along with several employees and then 2 to 3 employees at each satellite office. We communicated primarily through IM with occasional phone calls (this was pre-video calling). I worked part-time at our location with another woman, ‘Donna’ who worked full-time. Donna had a hate-on for our 3rd in command, ‘Krista’, and made no secret of it. Just a real bitterness for who knows what reason. Petty stuff to be sure. I played devil’s advocate when she would bash Krista by responding with reasoned responses as to why Krista would do/did do the things she did. Her: “Can you believe it?! Krista did such-and-such yesterday!!” Me: “Hmmm. Maybe she was attempting to achieve this-and-that.” Her: “I heard Krista said thing to person.” Me: “I can understand why if she was addressing situation.” Donna gave up getting me to commiserate with her and stuck to bashing to other employees over IM. One day, she was telling me she just had a bashing conversation over IM with another employee at head office and I said something to the effect of “Yikes! That’s awfully risky.” She questioned why and I said “Well, it’s a little arrogant of you to assume that all these people to whom you bash your boss are on your side. And to assume that they like you more than they like her. I’d be worried someone would show her your conversations with them.” She was a little flustered after that and expressed some anxiety about that happening, but a few days later she was right back at it. Welp, she bashed to the wrong person and a mere couple of weeks later was reprimanded big-time in a phone call involving Krista and both her parents. You’d think that would’ve been the end of that behavior but she continued the bashing, just to a smaller circle. She didn’t last too much longer, a few months maybe. I got a phone call one morning from Krista’s parents telling me there was an emergency and asking me to please meet them at the bank we used for all of our transactions, which eek! as that meant they had just spent a few hours traveling by air to get there. When I arrived at the bank, they switched all banking authority from Donna to me and told me they were going directly to the office to terminate Donna. Turned out she’d been up to other nefarious activities and the bashing just turned a spotlight on her. So dumb. I was promoted and took over the office the next morning. Donna came in a few days later to get some items she forgot there and acted like I had somehow betrayed her. The nerve! On the way out the door she told me she would “pray for me”! I’m atheist lol!

Comments are closed.