my male coworkers keep vomiting emotionally on me

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I am the sole female Turtle Analyst on my team (job title changed for anonymity, obviously). I’m young and new at the company (just had my two-year anniversary). I use the our database’s coding language daily. Part of my job is collaborating with the Turtle database team. Most of it is complex, intermediate questions, like, “How do I turn Sliders with long tails into Snappers in the Turtle database?” The issue is the department who handles it (six men) think I’m their group therapist.

This week ALONE I’ve heard about dead brothers, failing marriages, sick pets, emotional abuse, and so much more in graphic detail. From all of them. I can’t escape it because I do need to come to these people. My org doesn’t give admin access to anyone outside that team, so I can’t do this myself.

A work session will always start normally. “So, in the Aquatics section of the Turtle database, go to End…” It will somehow transform into, “My dad never loved me as much as his stepkids, but after Marie died…” The work will get done, but not before I’ve learned way too much. I am not sharing anything similar, by the way. Often, I don’t get room to say anything at all!

To give you an example, this is a mishmosh of several conversations, but they all start the same way:

Me: “Thanks for meeting with me about the Turtle conversion table.”

Coworker: “No worries, here’s how you get started…”

*work, until any pause, be it at a loading screen or firing up a new process*

Coworker: “So how are things? Glad that Turtle Lovers project is over, huh?” (It always starts with normal small talk, which is fine! It’s fine to say “I’ve had a crazy week” or “My daughter is home sick.”)

Me: “Yes, that one was a doozy! A bit frustrating, but my team is on the ball.”

Coworker: “Ha, yeah. You know, I was having a hard time lately too.”

Me:*hoping this is about WORK* “Oh yeah?” (I want to note that I don’t even get to respond before they get to the next line.)

Coworker: “Yeah, my dad is in a home. Dementia, you know, so he doesn’t recognize me. My brother is taking care of things down there, but it’s hard not seeing him. My brother was his favorite anyways. Did you know, it was my college graduation, and my dad skipped it because of my brother’s glee club recital? He didn’t ask to see my diploma! How could you do that to your son?! I’m not raising my stepdaughter like that, no sir. But I’m still close with my brother, even if…Oh hey, it loaded! Ok, so now that the Snappers are in…” (I haven’t said a WORD. Truly Shakespearean in his monologue.)

And you know what? My first instinct when this started was to be empathetic. A “wow, that sounds hard. Do you two talk much?” If only I knew this would derail us for 30 minutes! Now I realize I did this to myself, even though I stopped after this kept happening and started telling them to stop.

How do I get out of this? I can’t keep getting hit by random trauma every time I need help. My own nonsense gets set off by this (good thing I’m in actual therapy). And if I tell them bluntly to stop, or even suggest we move on, they either ignore me and carry on, or get huffy and will be slow to help next time. Their admin boss is hands off and rude. Mine is awesome, but he’s often ignored by the admin boss.

I’ve tried a few things:

Redirect to work: “Yes, and I see line 8 is ready, so what do we do with the Softshells?” (This normally gets cut off. They just pretend they didn’t hear me, or speak over me.)

Joking/HR stop: “Lower your voice. We don’t want to have to put you in coaching!” (Which is the only thing HR does when someone is being a problem.)

I haven’t tried “Stop, this is too much” or “It’s really weird you’re telling me this” because, like I said, they will just stop helping if I irritate them. They took a month to help my boss with access because of some perceived slight.

How do I balance this clear advantage (doing things way faster with their access) and not feeling like a garbage dump for emotions (I do NOT need the full list of your hamster’s medications)? I did this to MYSELF, ugh.

I have never heard of this team trauma dumping on anyone but me. Then again, I haven’t told my boss about this yet (the other team’s boss is so removed), so maybe no one else has said anything.

I’m also losing out on workplace connections because I can’t tell whether “I love tulips, how about you?” will turn into, “Ooh, yeah, the ones in Holland are awesome” or “My stepdad threw away the tulips I bought him.” AUGH. What should I do?

Readers, what’s your advice?

{ 584 comments… read them below }

  1. Owlette*

    “I haven’t tried “Stop, this is too much” or “It’s really weird you’re telling me this” because, like I said, they will just stop helping if I irritate them. They took a month to help my boss with access because of some perceived slight.”

    Have you told your boss what’s going on? Gone to HR? The fact that they won’t do their jobs unless they trauma-dump on you is…really bad, OP. I say you should flat-out tell them they’re being weird, and if they don’t work with you anymore, then you can let your boss/HR fire them for not doing their jobs. It would help if you could talk to your boss first to make sure they have your back.

    1. RIP Pillow Fort*

      At this point I fall on “Tell your boss and then start telling these guys explicitly to stop.”

      If they’re going to get out of sorts by telling them to stop- they’re not normal or rational. You don’t need to tip-toe around their bad behavior as if it’s an accurate reflection of you.

      The only thing I would be concerned about is apparently the entire team/boss are unreasonable and that’s not been checked by anyone above them. That’s a pretty red flag and it doesn’t sound like it’s a new one.

      1. goddessoftransitory*

        This kind of emotional sludge-spreading is one of those “well, Bob’s doing it so it’s more acceptable for me to do it too” situations, I find. They all support each other’s emotional spew/huffy refusal to do their contracted obligation as employees so that they don’t have to actually think about how weird and unprofessional it is to put a colleague in the position of therapist.

      2. Glitsy Gus*

        I agree with the talking to your manager first. If for no other reason if he starts hearing about your “bad attitude” he will have context going into that, rather than you having to explain after the fact. He may also have some tips on how to deal with it (since it sounds like he has had issues with this team as well), or a way he would like you to loop him in on things so he can have your back.

        Once you’ve talked to your manager, start setting some harder boundaries. “That’s rough, but really, this isn’t a work conversation. Can we get back to the database?”

        Also remember, you DIDN’T cause this! “Wow, that’s rough, I hope it gets better!” Is a perfectly normal, neutral response to someone oversharing. We all do it from time to time, and this is the way adults handle that. These team members are being (possibly intentionally) dense and inappropriate.

        1. Ricama*

          I’m also curious why this group is allowed to hold LW’s work hostage in the first place. Why doesn’t anyone else have access to the database? Maybe the boss needs to ask for access to at least work around them. I mean ideally the problem gets solved but failing that, find a way to work around it.

    2. Water Hyacinth*

      “I haven’t told my boss about this yet”

      Tell your boss already, yo! At the very least, you want to get ahead of this with your side of the story even if you don’t ask her to step in.

      1. Charlotte Lucas*

        This! The forced emotional work is bad enough, but think of all the actual work time being wasted.

        1. TechWorker*

          + 1

          If inter-departmental politics is a challenge boss also may be fine with being ‘blamed’ (I definitely would be in this situation!). ‘Sorry I really can’t chat, Boss has asked me to get through this training by ’ or ‘I only have 10minutes today, can we be as quick as possible?’

          I mean… you shouldn’t have to be this obtuse, but maybe coming across as just ‘busy’ would help a bit. I don’t know if gender is involved here, but I’m assuming these guys wouldn’t talk the ear off their boss or grand boss; there’s definitely a lack of respect for your time…

    3. LW Turtle Analyst*

      HR is useless at this place. They spend more time on “creative news blasts” than actually disciplining anyone. It is also very hard to get fired from here, and most of the admin team has been here for 10+ years.
      And it taking a month is standard process. They each have a queue of 200 requests monthly, so it’s slow going. However, I get to either skip the line or nudge a project forward. The admins are super helpful, and I am learning how to solve most of this myself after one session, but geez. I’m just exhausted.

      1. Putting the Dys in Dysfunction*

        It’s affecting your work, regardless of whether it’s an intentional slow walk of your projects or refusal to expedite your projects. This team is very transactional.

        Your boss should know that this is how they operate, and that it is taking a toll on you. Explain that you will not tolerate being their therapist any longer, and that there may be longer turnarounds because of it. It’s not for you to be hostage to their neediness, it’s for your boss to either do something about it or live with it (without blaming you).

        1. Despachito*

          Hang on – the intentional slowing down of OP’s projects would be malicious, but a refusal to expedite them is a completely different thing – this is a preferential treatment OP is not entitled to, and having to wait in the queue like everyone else is nothing she can officially complain about.

          1. Gato Blanco*

            I agree that if this is true, OP is definitely burying the lede here. If putting up boundaries with these colleagues results in workflow going as normal instead of workflow being expedited, that should be the expected outcome. I get that a slow unit causing a bottleneck is frustrating, but just like it is *not normal* to be an emotional dumping ground for colleagues, it is also not normal to expect preferential treatment because of interpersonal relationships at work.

      2. Qwerty*

        Is your HR just useless or actively detrimental? If the former, then go ahead and report it to them just to get the situation documented before you start pushing back on the DB team. That way when/if they stop helping you, there is evidence of retaliation to protect you. Don’t count on them helping you, but keep sending the documentation their way. If you think they would make the situation worse, than obviously use your best judgement.

        Who knows, maybe the next “creative news blast” will focus on therapy and how to use the company’s EAP program?

        1. TPS Reporter*

          “I’m going through a bunch of stuff too, and it’s painful for me to focus on anything beyond work now.”

          1. Leonine*

            I get what you’re going for here, but considering the gender dynamics, I’d be concerned that the tech dudes would start thinking of the LW as “fragile” or “unstable.” I wish I had an alternative to offer, but this is such an entrenched problem that outside gender sensitivity training and a sincere effort to improve, I don’t see how this gets resolved without weirdness and resentment from the dudes :-(

            1. Despachito*

              Does it matter what they think though, as long as they get off LW’s back?

              THEY are not so sensitive about what LW might think of THEM, are they?

              1. Leonine*

                If word gets around that she’s fragile or unstable, it could definitely affect her professional reputation.

                1. Despachito*

                  What if word get around that THEY are socially daft, obnoxious whiners?

                  If enforcing reasonable borders makes people spread a word that you are unstable or fragile, is it really a viable solution to cave in and be everyone’s doormat?

                  There definitely IS a risk of retaliation, but I think that unless you are starving, it is definitely worth it.

            2. Not that other person you didn't like*

              When I was very young, I had good results leaning into the exact opposite stereotype: “yeah, that sucks. I’m kind of like a dude in that I’m better at solving problems than sympathizing. Maybe you should just, I don’t know, divorce her / cut him off / ignore them? Sorry, that’s all I got.”

              Yes, it’s much better to do all the reasonable boss / hr stuff people are suggesting. But the “I’m not like the other girls, so let’s be bros” shtick was helpful for me in some toxic environments.

              1. SAS*

                Ha! I actually love this. “Not like other girls” is a for sure a toxic stereotype but why the hell not use it in a toxic environment.

      3. Mailer Daemon Targaryen*

        LW, I think you need to consider looking for another job.

        If HR is useless and your boss is ignored by this team’s boss and there’s no way for you to assert reasonable boundaries without it significantly impacting your work…I don’t think there’s going to a solution or script that will make any meaningful progress let alone fix this situation.

        You should still loop in your boss on what’s been happening so that they know what’s going on, but if they have no leverage against this boss/the other team, I don’t see how they could reasonably have your back. Maybe they can appeal to someone higher up, but this kind of behavior from an entire team going unchecked for this long doesn’t bode well. This is an office culture issue and those are impossible to fix on your own.

        1. Empress Matilda*

          Yeah, I hate to say it, but this is “your [workplace] sucks and isn’t going to change” territory. There’s chaos coming from all directions, and it doesn’t sound like it’s fixable unfortunately.

        2. Ellie*

          I agree. I think its worth talking to your boss about this, in case they can restructure your work to lessen the problem. I also think its worth having a one-time discussion with each of them (or all of them together, if that’s feasible) about how hearing about their trauma is triggering you, how its affecting your emotional well being, and that you hope they understand why you can’t keep hearing it from now on.

          However, I think there’s little hope that that will solve your problem. If they’re entitled enough not to help your boss for a month, because of a perceived slight, then they’ll absolutely take this out on you too. I think its worth being clear about what the problem is, just on principle, and I’d cite it in your exit interview as well. But you’d be much better off with a fresh start.

          1. OkayThen*

            I agree, but I don’t think I’d say it’s “triggering” her – that makes it sound like she’s struggling out of the gate. It’s labor, just like other kinds of labor, that she’s being asked to do for free because of her gender.

            If there’s an EAP, maybe LW should carry a stack of cards with her and hand them out whenever the emotional floodgates open.

      4. Tracy Flick*

        I mean? If HR is completely ineffectual, what negative consequences would they impose on you? What do you have to lose by complaining about this situation, getting no help, incurring the expected retaliation from the Oversharing Dude Squad, complaining about the retaliation, getting no help again, watching your ability to get your job done sink like a lead balloon due to continuing/escalating retaliation, having very little work due to retaliatory blockages, spending your newly copious spare time looking for another job, getting another job, and sailing off into the sunset? Preferably towards a company that employs more women? If they never fire anyone, they probably won’t fire you. You also have permission to be a bad employee! None of this is your fault!

      5. Anne Elliot*

        IMO, there’s really two ways to address that don’t involve HR. One is to just withdraw your emotional support with no explanation given. Just be less present for those conversations and I don’t mean physically present, I mean emotionally present. Keep your attention focused on the computer screen or otherwise continue to obviously do work. Keep your responses noncommittal (“Mmmm”) or nonexistent. Do not respond to nonwork conversations and let them blather on until they wide down and then say “That sounds tough” and immediately redirect the conversation back to work. You can even go so far as to say, “It sounds like you’ve got a lot on your mind. Is this a good time to talk about this work issue or would you like me to come back later?” Which is a nicer way of saying, “Let’s talk about work or I’m going to leave.”

        The problem with this approach is that you have already been established, willingly or not, as a sympathetic ear. If you withdraw that perceived support, there may be confusion or resentment regarding why you are being so “cold” when you used to be so “warm.” If that’s an issue, the other option is a short but frank conversation: “Look, I know sometimes you want to talk over this kind of personal stuff with me and I’ve been willing to take part in that, but what you don’t know is that I find myself really thinking about the situation afterward and kind of carrying it around in my head, and finding it upsetting to me personally.. That’s not good for me. I really value you as a coworker, but I need to try to keep our conversations more work related.”

        You need to find a way to let these guys know what your personal boundaries are, because, in fairness, it doesn’t sound like they know that right now. Once you’ve established that boundary, you then will need to reinforce it. But I personally am not a fan of the first move being to go to HR when you are dealing with coworkers who legitimately might not recognize that they are even doing anything wrong.

        1. As Per Elaine*

          I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that spewing childhood trauma all over a coworker, in such a manner that said coworker often doesn’t get a word is edgewise, is doing something wrong. ESPECIALLY when we factor in that this team will retaliate if she asks them to shut it down.

          I don’t really care if they don’t know that it’s wrong or not — that doesn’t make it Turtle Analyst’s job to teach them, especially not since it’s likely to have repercussions on her own work.

          1. Anne Elliot*

            “Doing something wrong” is subjective, so our mileage certainly may vary. Regardless, I never said her coworkers weren’t doing something wrong, just that they may not recognize that, especially if they are under the impression the OP doesn’t mind them doing so. I don’t find it productive to decide whose “job” it is or is not, given that the OP has already said she can’t expect any assistance from HR. So if she wants to fix it, sounds like she’s going to have to try to fix it herself, and thus my comment.

        2. Crooked Bird*

          I want to second the “less emotionally present” thing. I feel like people don’t always realize the power of eye contact or lack thereof, and the very fact that people don’t realize it lends it extra power.

          I don’t know whether it’s appropriate for this situation (LW may know), but when you have an emotional vampire/attention sucker whom you need not to offend for some reason (my reason, for instance, was that she would freak out and call in mediation for our “conflict” if I even let annoyance tinge my voice and it would be soooo tedious), there’s a technique I’ve learned that takes SO MUCH emotional pressure off, and not making eye contact is its foundation. Maybe you’ve heard of Grey Rock, where you give minimal, emotionless responses to someone terrible you’re forced to deal with? Well this is Pink Rock, the same thing with a veneer of positivity. It is basically a feminine-coded activity, and it works great when people are putting those Nice Lady expectations on you.

          – Don’t make eye contact basically ever, or at least not during Those interactions. (It’s amazing how this protects you from the impact of their emotions. Amazing.) But PRETEND to make eye contact. Look in their general direction. Look at their left ear, eyebrow, whatever.
          – Smile while you do it. Smile a lot.
          – Greet them warmly when you see them, before they’ve said anything negative.
          – When they do start going on at you, say nothing while pretending to look at them. Get distracted easily–glance away and glance back. Act only half-aware that they’re speaking, but if the moment really requires you saying something, say it–make it appropriate, vague, and then get distracted again. “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.” (Is that a cardinal in that tree outside! Oh my goodness! Oh, are you still talking? Sorry, lost track!) Get more distracted as time goes on; move around the room if appropriate. Open a new tab in your browser, shuffle some papers, brightly glance at them and smile, become interested in your half-full coffee mug.

          What happens is, the interaction becomes utterly unsatisfying for them, BUT they can’t put their finger on what you’re doing “wrong.” You’re not being cold or mean or rejecting. You are in fact being Nice. Deeply unsatisfyingly Nice. My emotional vampire had no idea what to do. (And meanwhile my blood pressure no longer went up when she approached.) She did keep asking if she’d offended me when she’d done X or Y trivial thing, and I would smile real big and say, “No, not at all! I think we’re doing great with each other, better than ever before!” Eventually she complained we weren’t “close” anymore, and I smiled real big and said, “Oh, you know, we just have really different personalities, but honestly I feel like we’re doing great!”

          And we were. And we continued to be.

          1. happybat*

            I love this. I’ve also had success with anger-on-their-behalf. If they are looking to be soothed then you can subvert that by getting OUTRAGED at what they are going through. Slightly raised voice, bit of a rant about how terrible that is, laundry list of things they should do. It means you stay unarguably on their side, but also deny them the cosy comfort they wanted. It can even startle them into leaving you alone. Totally fails if they like emotional intensity, mind you.

      6. Em*

        This is an out there speculation, but it did occur to me so I’ll share, hah. I work in IT and everyone has a pressing business need to skip the queue or bulldoze deployment deadlines. Waiting a month for your ticket to get processed is outrageous, especially if it’s purely a data request, so I don’t blame you for working around their terrible delivery timeline. But I wonder if this team is actively trying to weird you out because they’re tired of dealing with your ad-hoc requests? I hope not, but this seems so weird it gives me the slight vibe that it’s intentional.

        1. Bob-White of the Glen*

          I doubt it. Some people are just people that seem sympathetic and get a lot more personal stuff dumped on them than others.

          This would be a weird concerted group efforts if deliberate. And why bring in your personal life if you are trying to get someone to stop bothering you?

            1. Hosta*

              Ugh, I have this too. Complete strangers corner me on the elevator to tell me about their hysterectomy. I’ve heard spontaneous admissions of emotional abuse while I’m just trying to pick out which orange I want. And don’t even get me started on shopping lines.

              Out in the wild, I am riveted by my phone. At work, I always have a clip board of cryptic notes and am in a rush to do something

          1. Em*

            It would be very bizarre and probably isn’t the case. But I did start my career in working for a small org that was a stunning disaster. There were various factions of angry employees who would mount truly bizarre, passive aggressive “attacks” on the people they disliked, like stereotypical high school movie on steroids. On top of that, HR was just a small paragraph tacked onto the payroll job description, i.e it didn’t exist. So strange things can happen when the place is a mess.

        2. lime*

          I think this is just a weird, stressed dude thing. I’ve been one of the only two women on an IT team. Our male co-workers would do the same thing– they’d spend the whole day IMing us about their problems and stopping by our office for emotional support. We weren’t asking them for help on anything– they just needed someone to talk to and we were women and that’s what we’re there for, right? /sarcasm

          1. Em*

            Man, that sucks. I’m also 1 of 2 women on an IT team and thankfully neither of us have this experience. It sounds exhausting and extremely uncomfortable to deal with.

      7. MM*

        If a month is what’s normal for your office, then presumably you won’t get dinged for your stuff taking the normal amount of time instead of queue-jumping, right? In which case, just push back and give up your perk/workaround. Seems worth it to me. (I do think it’s a good idea to give your boss a heads-up, though.)

        If for whatever reason you don’t want to do that, can you reframe what’s happening in your head to be much more transactional? “I am allowing Flaubert to monologue at me in exchange for speedy service. It does not matter what he is saying or what I say in response; this is the part where I ‘uh-huh’ till it’s over.” Just like, stop listening. Like Fran Drescher on the phone with her mother. The monologues have nothing actually to do with you, and from your description your responses don’t matter to these guys. Much as Alison often advocates for creating emotional distance and viewing weird work stuff as anthropologically interesting at most, can you mentally turn this into the equivalent of waiting for something to buffer instead of an emotional demand? (I know it’s easier said than done–believe me, boy do I know–and it can take time, but it IS possible.)

      8. Shelf Adventure*

        Maybe you could mention to HR that you’re concerned that the team have some personal stuff going on that they obviously need to get off their chest (as they are constantly coming to you with them and it’s interfering with your work/making you feel uncomfortable/you don’t have the skills or bandwidth to help them or listen) and maybe it would be a nice idea to have one of those office pastors or someone swing by once a month to give employees the opportunity to get that stuff of their chests without having to share personal issues with colleagues or disrupt anyone’s work? I know you say they are useless but in my experience HR love that kind of stuff, especially when it gives them the chance to send round flashy email posters about how amazing they are and what great stuff they are doing re mental health etc…..

      9. Luna*

        You could stonewall them. Let them rant, and don’t react. No “mhm”, no “Wow, that sounds bad”, or even a “Uh-huh”. Stoneface. You are a rock and their rant is just wind passing by you.

        But if HR and all really sucks this much, maybe finding a different job would be the best solution. Just get out and let these giant male toddlers walk around in misery because they can’t deal with their issues without a Mommy Therapist.

    4. goddessoftransitory*

      Agreed. You aren’t their therapist, LW. It’s literally not in your job description.

      I get a bit of this at my job and have in the past at other jobs, and one thread I’ve noticed in all of them–the people doing this have burned out their regular support systems (family, spouses, friends) but have not made any actual adjustments to their lives to deal with the problem/problems. Instead they tend to seek out any person who is brought into their orbit and just use them as a receptacle, like filling up paper bag after paper bag in their apartment with trash because the actual trash can is full. These unwilling receptacles quite of tend to be women, surprise.

      It’s one thing to blurt something out when you’re stressed or exhausted–we’ve all done it. It’s another to assume a coworker you barely know/cashier/person taking your food order wants to hear the gruesome details of your relationship with your dad or how you can’t show love to your kids.

      1. As Per Elaine*

        Hm. I wonder what would happen if LW didn’t stop being a listening ear, but became a listening ear who pushed them to actually do something. “That sounds tough — maybe you should consider reading Captain Awkward’s advice about cutting contact with abusive family?” And then later, when it comes up again, “So have you taken any steps to stand up for yourself?”

        (Mind you, I don’t know that I’m *suggesting* this. It might embroil LW further, or trigger retaliation for not listening like she used to. But pushing for action *might* make her a less attractive place to FEELINGSDUMP.)

        1. Radical Edward*

          This is an excellent point and has actually worked for me in the past, in extremely similar situations (coworkers dumping on me when I don’t have time/TMI conversations that just keep rehashing the same woes). A brief expression of sympathy, followed immediately by advice and a question that forces them to acknowledge their role in the situation, makes continuing their monologue difficult or impossible.

          Interrupting the flow of the rant is key. Once they perceive you as an unappealing (that is, not passively tolerant) audience, it’s likely they’ll stop. It’s just that their perception of what equals ‘not passively tolerant’ is different from most people’s.

        2. Leonine*

          Oh my goodness, what if LW did this, but took it to a ridiculous extreme? LW, you could become a font of unsoliticited and TERRIBLE advice until they leave you alone.

          Dude: My father is emotionally unavailable.
          LW: Horrible. You should burn his house down.

          Dude: My stepkids walk all over me.
          LW: You know what would earn their respect? Facial piercings. Lots of them.

          Dude: I’m anxious and I have trouble sleeping.
          LW: Oh, the best thing for that is to get up and go for a really long walk. Like, miles and miles. It resets your nervous system. If you’re not asleep by midnight, get up and walk five or six miles. You’ll see the difference, I promise you!

          My chaotic heart longs for you to do this, LW, and to update us afterward. Godspeed

          1. A Becky*

            That last one would work for me! I have ADHD, and while I don’t always do it because I value the mental wind-down, I can get myself to sleep in five minutes 99% of the time by doing thirty squats and thirty tricep dips or two minutes of jumping jacks, then lying down in a dark room.

        3. DrRat*

          I actually WAS a therapist in the past, and my sweet mother is the kind of person who attracted this kind of feelings dump in both her personal and work life. I suggested that she let the person get one or two sentences in and interrupt and say in a neutral voice, “Wow. Sounds like you need to talk to a therapist about that.”

          This lets the person know 1) I am not a therapist 2) You are freaking oversharing and 3) I have boundaries. I use it myself now that I have changed careers. It generally works like a charm and 90% of the time you only have to say it about 3 times before the offender gives up.

      2. H.Regalis*

        “One thread I’ve noticed in all of them–the people doing this have burned out their regular support systems (family, spouses, friends) but have not made any actual adjustments to their lives to deal with the problem/problems.”

        Agreed. I’ve got a buddy who does this. He’s my friend and I love him, but he has burned through the listening ears of everyone we know; and has had a few iterations of making a new friend, dumping everything on them, and then losing that friend. Part of why I have been able to stay friends with him is because I have pulled way back from being someone he can vent to.

      3. Momma Bear*

        Aside from gray rocking them on it, OP can also say, “It sounds very stressful for you. If you need help finding a mental health specialist to talk to, we have an EAP. This topic makes me uncomfortable. It’s better you talk to a professional. So about line 15 about Teapot Production numbers….”

        I have a coworker who does this and depending on the day I might say I have a meeting/need to join a meeting (put your headphones on even if you aren’t listening), that wow, this is beyond my expertise but good luck, or just listen for a moment, nod and steer back to work. But it really depends on the person and topic.

  2. Moi*

    It sounds like there are a lot of struggling people at your company. Does your company have an employee assistance program? If not, I’d advocate to your managers for one. (Investing in their employees mental health will benefit the company, although regardless it should be done either way as it is the right thing to do). If that’s in place, you can refer them to the EAP

    1. Moi*

      E.g that sounds real hard. It sounds like you have a lot to process. I would recommend contacting the eap to chat with someone about this

      And if it continues
      “I’m sorry, that sounds really hard. Unfortunately, I am not able to be a support to you for this. If you would like to talk about this, please contact the EAP

      Or more bluntly. “I’m sorry that happened to you. I need to keep our conversations focused on work”.

      1. Charlotte Lucas*

        Keep the link or any brochures about EAP handy, too. That way you can redirect while giving them an outlet for all this.

      2. EmbracesTrees*

        My guess is these (clueless and selfish) men are not thinking of how they’re dumping trauma on her. While it’s unfair, sexist, and crappy in so many ways, responding neutrally but kindly could maintain and possibly even strengthen the team interactions, while getting her out of the forced-therapist-position.

        How about: “I’m sorry you experienced this. I have a lot too, and, I’m sorry, but I just can’t handle other people’s [stuff] on top of my own. I really recommend talking with EAP/a professional/someone qualified to help; it can be freeing.”

        Repeat as needed.

        1. Robin Ellacott*

          I like this wording. I’ve used some version of “wow, sorry to hear that! It’s way above my pay grade but I know EAP has consultants for __. I hope things get better for you soon!” [turns away]

          Our EAP has advice in all kinds of areas (legal, financial, etc.) as well as mental health counselling so it makes it easy to refer people in a “they can give you tools/expertise” rather that implying “wow, you need HELP.”

      3. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

        I agree, just pick a quick phrase that redirects them someplace else more appropriate, like their boss, EAP or HR, and then lather rinse repeat. “I think our company has X resource that would really be much more qualified to help you than I can.” x 1,000. It might take some time, but once they lose the reward, they might stop*. But also, the OP should loop in their own manager, HR or EAP herself, because they might have some services she can use too in addition to her own therapist. These are heavy topics in the examples.

        * The ease at which they switch back to work is odd so even though you say HR is ineffectual, that might in a way be to your advantage to blow them off with “you should talk to HR about that” on lather rinse repeat will indicate you aren’t the empathy audience they want.

    2. LW Turtle Analyst*

      That’s a great perspective. And we do! It’s really good. A “Oh, Chuckles, that’s definitely a sign to go to the EAP people. They can really help with this hard stuff. I’m not that level of useful, ha!”

      1. Keyboard Cowboy*

        Yep, just to add, one thing that has worked well for me (in Twitch communities, where people inexplicably love to trauma dump, and in my own path as a woman in tech) is to stress “I’m not qualified to help you out with this – you should really seek out a therapist!” In your case, I think you could lighten the mood by emphasizing “I got all my certifications in TortLang, not therapy licensure! I’m really unqualified to help you out here.”

        Pointing out that using you for that kind of thing is like asking a gourmet sausage maker to do heart surgery seems to be pretty effective – you’re basically saying that you’d do more harm than good if you did try to help.

      2. Trawna*

        Decent script. But, why the self-deprecating “ha!”? I suggest being very straightforward.

        “Every member of your team confides in me like this. It needs to stop. Our firm has a very good EAP program, and I’m not it. Please connect with them. (pause) Now, back to business”.

        If this doesn’t work, I suggest escalating the issue to your manager, giving them a heads-up that you’ll be scheduling meetings to include them and Turtle database team’s manager. If you get stonewalled in information because of drawing this boundary, and the managers don’t nip it in the bud, polish off your resume.

        Good luck whatever route you take.

        1. Starbuck*

          Because even when you’re clearly in the right, sometimes it’s more useful and effective to take a softening approach to allow people to save face and not get belligerent at the correction. Should you have to? No, but it can be more practical to do so.

      3. AA Baby Boomer*

        I had someone like that. If I started talking about myself he would leave my office.

        Not sure if that would help or make it worse in your situation.

        1. Firebird*

          He wants the trauma dumping to only go one way. When they start dumping, I start complaining about my toxic mother or ex depending on the subject. They can’t get away fast enough and I’m getting trauma dumped on less often.

          1. Boof*

            I like this as well. OK to make the reciprocal trauma dump outrageously trivial too, ie,
            Coworker “the worstest thing a human could possibly endure –”
            LW “OMG yes, today I spilled a little coffee on my way out SO ANNOYING! I didn’t have a towl on hand and – oh look the turtles are hatched!”
            (IRL I’m not really beholden to anyone too hard and usually just resort to moving things along – increasingly bruskly as needed – if someone keeps rambling about stuff that isn’t really related to the task at hand or that I don’t really care to participate in. I’m a really terrible emotional bandaid; not actually intentionally – it’s something I’ve actually tried to work to be better about – but I guess it has it’s uses)

      4. Hannah Lee*

        I heard someone describe things like this as someone “using a pool float as a life raft”

        Normal workplace banter, chit chat can be a pool float, something people use for a brief break from work.

        But these co-workers are diving onto it and camping out like it’s a life raft – dragging LW down with them. Workplace banter, chit chat is NOT meant to be a dumping ground for a lifetime of trauma, dissatisfaction or dysfunction. These guys are being unfair and gross by dumping all this on you LW.

        If that team doesn’t respond well to the scripts folks have offered, I’m afraid it might be time for a new job.

        1. Librarian of SHIELD*

          The comedian Taylor Tomlinson has a bit about her mental health diagnosis where she compares medication to pool arm floaties, and talks about how if you’re not using your arm floaties, sometimes you grab hold of a person to keep yourself afloat, but when you do that, you’re holding them under water and harming them. I made it sound serious, but it’s a really funny bit. I’ll put the link in a reply.

      5. Keymaster of Gozer*

        I’ve had phenomenal success with ‘I’m not the right audience for this’.

        (Former DBA, now IT manager and hoo boy do I know what it’s like when people assume woman = emotional dumping ground)

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          I’ve used “way outside the scope of my job – but can I give you EAP’s contact info instead” successfully.

      6. Ace in the Hole*

        This strategy could work well, especially if you follow up with a compassionate “please stop” message the next time they do it. Something like, “I want to be sympathetic, but hearing this kind of thing at work can be really overwhelming for me. Could we please stick to lighter topics?”

        You shouldn’t have to be so delicate with their feelings, but if you’re worried about getting a bad reaction it can help to say stop in a way that comes across as empathetic.

        1. Guin*

          TurtleLW shouldn’t bring her own issues into any convo with these emotional vampires. “Let’s finish the LandTortoise download here.” “Sorry, my time is limited, let’s stick to reworking the SeaTurtle program.” “I’m sorry to hear that, you should reach out to the EAP people.” She should definitely not state or imply that their wordvomit triggers her in any way.

          1. Ace in the Hole*

            That’s a reasonable point, I think it really depends on the situation and what LW is comfortable with.

            Personally I wouldn’t consider what I described to be bringing her own issues into the conversation, since “it’s overwhelming to have coworkers act like I’m their therapist” is not an issue with her. Focusing on subjective individual impacts is just a way to make it more difficult to argue with or get defensive about… for example, people are much less likely to argue with me if I say “It’s hard for me to hear the phone over this music, could you please turn it down?” as opposed to “The music is drowning out the phones, please turn it down.”

            Nothing I suggested had anything to do with triggering in any way. There is a huge difference between things that are upsetting/exhausting/overwhelming and things that are triggering, and implying otherwise trivializes actual triggers.

    3. Empress Matilda*

      This is a good point. It’s not unusual for a team to have one or two trauma-dumpers, but it’s really strange that the entire group is doing it! That must be absolutely exhausting for you.

      Also I think it’s another data point to what I said above – this workplace is a garbage fire. Not just that they don’t deal with problems, but that this kind of problem exists in the first place – it’s really telling.

      1. RLC*

        My thoughts exactly!
        I have so much sympathy for the LW as I was in a similar situation for years – and in retrospect can see that the place was pretty much a bin fire. Even higher level staff and staff from other offices came to unload on me, to the point that one colleague joked that I needed a “psychiatric help 5 cents” sign over my desk (Lucy from “Peanuts” reference). We had an EAP but no one wanted to go through the process of contacting them (or didn’t trust that it would be confidential?); easier to show up at my office or snag me in the parking lot after work. “I’m busy / working” statements and body language NEVER helped. If I turned away and buried my face in documents/AutoCAD/Excel some people would still keep talking.

    4. Well...*

      A variant on this is just to consistently direct them towards actions to solve their problems. “Wow, that sounds hard. Have you tried talking to a therapist?” on repeat.

      You know how people often get the advice to just *listen* to their friends rather than trying to solve all their problems? Yeah, here, do the exact opposite of this. Keep pushing them towards solutions and cutting off avenues for them to keep dumping on you.

      Also keep the solutions short and repetitive so you don’t end up in a brainstorming session/argument. If you get pushback about whatever you suggest, then say, “Oh well that’s all I can offer, it seems like you know best though” and then keep repeating that. Also go with, “You already know what I think would help you.”

      Another option is to start looking at your phone when they monologue. Or bring up something about yourself that pops into your head.

      Basically, be the worst listener. Channel rude millennial stereotypes, unmanaged ADHD stereotypes, the friend who never cared what you were saying in high school. I’m naturally kind of like this (I work really hard not to be like this, but I’m naturally not a good listener) and people don’t come to me with their problems, even though I’m a woman in a male-dominated field.

    5. Dwight*

      EAPs are absolute trash though. I tried to use it to get a therapist pre-pandemic, and it was worthless. During the pandemic when my company decided to put me on a PIP you couldn’t get a therapist for literal months. Now you can’t even get one through the EAP.

      1. anon in affordable housing*

        I was recommordered to go to EAP back in the early 90s and the “therapist” was basically tasked with finding reasons why I wasn’t qualified for my job. Up to and including accusing me of “having a delusion” I had attended (and dropped out of) a fairly unimpressive state university with a B+ average and saying that if I brought in a transcript, it would really be a utility bill that I fantasized was a transcript. (My employer had a *certified* copy of that transcript, sealed by the Registrar, as part of my pre-employment documentation.)

        (And some candidates for Congress can’t pass a fact check on their diplomas, just sayin’…)

      2. BubbleTea*

        Definitely depends on the EAP. I’ve called ours twice and both times been able to speak to a counselor. One was excellent, one was adequate. On both occasions it helped me cope until I could speak to my own therapist.

  3. Radish Queen*

    I think simple, kind responses are ok. Sometimes I tune people out and simply respond “That sounds really hard. I hope things get better for your dad” or “That sounds stressful, I’m sorry you’re going through that” or “I’m sorry that happened to you”

    I am female. I have a coworker (who sits next to me) who endured a lot of childhood trauma and has a dysfunctional family. Sometimes he shares too much. I try to just use these responses but not engage further (no questions or trying to continue in any way) and it seems to work to at least shorten conversations.

    Another strategy may be to ask questions over a chat software or similar – less small talk hopefully.

    1. Radish Queen*

      Adding more thoughts as I read through your letter again. Could you advocate to your manager to create a training resource or documentation library so overall the company has a shared resource for some of these questions? And therefore things are not delayed based on this team (or, in broader business thinking, the processes can continue efficiently if members of this team retire / quit etc.) Doesn’t stop the trauma dumping but hopefully stops the need to interact with them for critical help.

      And it goes without saying, I’m sorry you’re in this position. It’s very uncomfortable!

      1. Tracy Flick*

        I like this! LW – How about letting them know that you are going to start recording these sessions, because you are planning to use them to create a training resource?

        That might cut down on the derailing and oversharing, and it will also give you a way to document this behavior if you need to show your manager the extent of the problem.

        1. Please don't record*

          What. No, don’t do this.

          These are exceptionally personal things that are being shared and it’s not appropriate to record them, or use them to create a training resource, especially not without a process of informed, written consent.

          1. Lisa*

            I think it’s a great idea because personal things WON’T be shared if there is an agreement in place to record the sessions for training.

          2. SpecialSpecialist*

            Tracy Flick was suggesting using this as a tactic in the hopes that if they knew they were being recorded then maybe they wouldn’t dump that info on the OP.

          3. LizB*

            I think the goal would be that if you tell them at the beginning of the session that you’re going to be recording*, they will choose not to share their exceptionally personal things. The exceptionally personal things aren’t part of the work here, and really don’t belong at all in these meetings. It’s the coworkers’ choice to share them, and they could simply… not.

            *if this is happening virtually, both Zoom and Teams give multi-model notifications when recording starts (a voice says “recording in progress” and there’s a pop-up and/or a chat message that you’re being recorded). So if the LW says outright, “I’m going to record this,” then those kick in, that’s more than enough to allow the coworkers to make an informed decision about what to say on the call.

          4. Chilipepper Attitude*

            The goal is NOT to record their private personal stories!!! It is to get them to stop sharing them because they are being recorded. I love this solution!

          5. Nicosloanica*

            What? The comment is clearly to suggest that you *start* recording moving forward, announcing so in advance, in an effort to prevent the intimate conversations from starting because it will make the session business-focused. I actually think the commenters are on to something in that OP feels trapped in trying to stay on these people’s good sides because she can’t advance without them; it does sound like they need more crosstraining.

          6. Tracy Flick*

            I disagree, and I think this is completely off-base.

            These meetings are professional interactions between coworkers. LW’s coworkers have no reasonable expectation of privacy at the level you are asserting. They should not be sharing “exceptionally personal things” in the first place. They are at work in a work meeting, not in therapy.

            If one of your coworkers were pulling a Jeffrey Toobin* during Zoom staff meetings, recording all meetings as a deterrent would be an appropriate solution. It wouldn’t be like installing cameras in office bathroom stalls. It wouldn’t be a violation of privacy, because a Zoom meeting (unlike a bathroom stall) is not a private place.

            This is also not a private place. It isn’t even a work meeting where there is an expectation of confidentiality or the exchange of private information, like a meeting with a supervisor or HR. LW’s role does not include any such responsibility, and LW is not responsible for receiving or responding to *any* personal information from her coworkers.

            LW is also not obligated to re-define a non-private place as “private” because her coworkers have decided to do something that should only be done in private. That’s on them, just like it would be on me if I did a striptease in a Best Buy.

            LW can notify them in advance that she is going to start recording their work meetings at work.

            There is a norm that employees will not be secretly recorded at work, and that people running meetings will notify participants that the meeting is being recorded. If they don’t want to be recorded at all, they can object in the same way they might object if they didn’t want an all-hands Zoom meeting recorded. It is not the norm to obtain “informed, written consent” before recording something like a staff meeting.

            If they don’t want to be recorded saying “exceptionally personal things” during a work meeting at work, they can stop talking about their divorces/dead blood relatives/medical crises.

            But LW is not obligated to refrain from recording or sharing a recording because her coworkers have decided to share “exceptionally personal things” in a space where there is no privacy.

            *should that be ‘pulling *his* Jeffrey Toobin?’

          7. Hannah Lee*

            “and it’s not appropriate to record them”

            The not appropriate thing is the *sharing of those personal stories in the first place *

            LW using the announced process of recording them for training to head that inappropriate sharing off before it starts in the first place would be a good thing – a return of these interaction back to “appropriate for the workplace” territory

          8. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            Why not? We absolutely do record training, knowledge transfer, and some of our working sessions, to use as a training resource. With the massive turnover that our org has had over the past 5+ years, these recordings have been a huge help.

            No written consent requested or given, but the meeting organizer says it in the beginning that the session will be recorded, and then “I am now starting the recording”. This is universally understood by everyone as “stop talking about dying hamsters and start talking about the subject of our meeting”.

          9. Worldwalker*

            Which is exactly why they will then stop doing it.

            The training resource would be for the actual technical questions that the discussions are *supposed* to be about, not the unsolicited emotional dumping.

          10. Please don't record*

            Wow. Lot of pushback.

            For reference, I literally work in a field where I do record private information, and I would be uncomfortable announcing I was recording, then carrying around those recordings on my phone. Also, in my profession, I would be prohibited by various ethics and legal rules from doing so. If you’re in a two-party consent state for recording, this could pose a problem; I don’t know that “announcing” you’ll be recording is enough, and not everybody is going to want to take the risk.

            I stand by what I said. There’s lots of good ways to solve this very valid problem, but preemptively announcing, “hey, I’m going to record this!”, making a recording, and then carrying it around with you on your personal phone and/or sharing it with other people when you may or may not have told the person who is on the recording that you’re doing so is a Bad Idea, ethically, legally, and professionally.

            1. Tracy Flick*

              That is not similar to the situation we’re describing.

              First, the LW wouldn’t be “carrying around those recordings on [her] phone.” She would be maintaining them on a work computer or shared work drive, just like recordings created of other meetings. I’m not sure where you came up with the idea that these recordings would be made on a personal device – these calls occur at work and occur on the same devices LW uses for her work, e.g. her work computer.

              Second, this situation – where someone announces that they are recording a meeting and then starts recording it – is very normal in LW’s industry and in office environments in general. It’s fairly standard to record group meetings, training sessions, round tables, etc. It is also fairly standard to simply say, “Hey, this meeting is being recorded,” and then hit the ‘Record’ button on whatever platform you’re using. There are some legal considerations – this is discoverable, etc. – but it is not abnormal or generally a dangerous or inappropriate thing to do.

              Third, LW’s role does *not* involve hearing private information from her coworkers. LW’s professional interactions with these coworkers do *not* include any expectation that they share private information, that she receive private information, or that she create or maintain any level of privacy. These are work meetings involving work matters. Rather than an expectation of privacy, there is an expectation of sharing and documentation – so much so that LW’s manager will probably be pleased that she has taken the initiative to record these sessions in more detail in a way that is more accessible to her coworkers.

              I think these distinctions are important, and it is surprising to me that you are not aware of these normal practices, especially since your job involves recording private information.

            2. Jennifer*

              Legally, nobody would have a leg to stand on to object to the recording if they participated in a meeting after the meeting leader announced they were recording. That’s what consent means for this purpose: you know it’s being recorded, and you participate anyway.

              It’s not unethical to record work product for work purposes. I think your point of view is very much in the minority. This is database work, not doctors discussing confidential patient information or lawyers swapping client details.

            3. LizB*

              I think you’re envisioning a very different situation from what all the rest of us understood from the LW’s letter. Maybe the situation you’re envisioning is a very normal one in your line of work, but from what the LW describes, this is what I believe is happening:

              LW asks TMI Ted for a meeting to teach her how to run the Tortoise report. They schedule a Zoom call together. They are both on work computers. LW maybe screen-shares so Ted can see what she’s doing, and is expecting Ted to talk her through the steps. Ted does talk her through the steps, but while they’re waiting for the report to load, he starts monologuing about his traumatic childhood. LW is a captive audience because she needs this report, so she ends up having to hear Ted’s very personal information. After the meeting ends, LW is very reasonably not happy about having to endure Ted’s irrelevant and unwanted trauma-dumping.

              Here’s what could be happening:
              LW asks TMI Ted for a meeting to teach her how to run the Tortoise report. They schedule a Zoom call together. They are both on work computers. At the beginning of the call, before anyone has said anything other than “hi”, LW says, “Hey, I’m going to record this meeting so I can refer back to it next time I need these instructions. Boss asked me to create some training resources.” Ted says sure, because this is a very normal thing that people with knowledge jobs do all the time. LW hits record and screen-shares, and Ted talks her through the steps to get the report. While the report is loading, maybe they chat about the weather or sit in awkward silence, but it’s sure as heck better than hearing about Ted’s stepdad’s drug problem. After the meeting ends, the LW got the info she needed and has a step by step recording to use as a training tool. Ted might be annoyed he didn’t get to expound on his tragic adolescence, but he was 100% aware from the beginning that the meeting would be recorded, so he chose to keep it professional, as he should have been doing all along.

              If the LW offers to record, Ted agrees, and then launches into his monologues anyway… I’d say the LW should probably delete that recording afterward, and try a different strategy. But I think that’s a pretty unlikely outcome here.

              1. Sasha*

                If he does start monologising, it is also very easy to say “hey Ted, remember we’re recording this as a training resource for the whole dept, let’s stick to work topics”.

                Certainly easier than saying “hey Ted, shut it, I don’t want to know about your step-brother’s kidney transplant”.

              2. just passing through*

                If Ted starts in on his personal issues, LW could even say, “Whoa, dude, remember we’re recording this for reference!” before he even gets to the juicy bits.

              3. Tracy Flick*

                I think if this doesn’t work as a deterrent, it would be okay to keep the recordings to show to the manager in confidence – “See, this is what I mean about trauma-dumping – I don’t think this is appropriate behavior” – just like I would keep recordings if a coworker were doing something else really inappropriate that I needed to report.

                But yeah, it definitely wouldn’t be appropriate to just upload The Trauma Dump Tapes to the shared drive Training folder.

            4. Dhaskoi*

              You have conflated two completely different situations. These guys are arbitrarily choosing to reveal personal information to the LW completely unrelated to the work they’re actually doing. Practically speaking they should have no expectation of privacy. The point of the recorder tactic is to remind them of that.

              You know she’s not actually a therapist right?

        2. Radish Queen*

          I would only do this after discussing with a manager who agrees that voice recordings are a useful training tool. In my field they are not. So it would be extremely weird to just start doing this.

          1. Kit*

            I think managerial buy-in would be crucial, but I believe the suggestion is that the sessions be recorded for LW’s reference as she creates training materials, not necessarily used as-is. Just like a call readout or meeting notes might be produced from a recording, having the complete process on tape to refer to as LW is building training materials would be a perfectly reasonable request.

            1. Tracy Flick*

              Yeah, plus this can be true enough without forcing a connection between the recordings and the eventual deliverable that is more than tenuous – LW doesn’t have to use them in any kind of programmatic way so long as the eventual training materials materialize.

              1. anon in affordable housing*

                I like the idea except that OP doesn’t have access to the Turtle database–that’s why she has to have the DBA folks involved. So does it still make sense for OP to be creating training materials for stuff if they wouldn’t be able to follow those procedures?

          2. breamworthy*

            They wouldn’t be voice recordings, they would be screen recordings, probably made through Zoom or Teams, of everything that occurs in the meeting, including voices and visuals. It’s an extremely common training format.

      2. Sparkles McFadden*

        This sounds like a really good way to talk to the boss about this. It’s a long term solution to a training issue that allows LW to bring up the emotional vomiting and pettiness of the coworkers.

      3. Kel*

        I think the issue I have with this is that still puts the onus on the LW to do the emotional labour of advocating.

        It should be something LW can put a stop to, period.

        1. Radish Queen*

          I mean yeah, I get that LW is the one that needs to do the work, but Boss isn’t witnessing these interactions unfortunately. Perhaps suggesting a training resource would help get them more involved.

      1. Radish Queen*

        To me it sounded like they asked a follow-up question “do you and your dad talk much?” but I could be wrong. In my experience, it takes time, but eventually they run out of things to say and it stops being so much.

        1. Hobbette*

          Unfortunately, some folks NEVER run out of things to say (or are prone to repeating the same stories over and over ad nauseum)!

        2. brjeau*

          I got the impression that they asked follow-up questions early on, but have since stopped responding to the emotion/trauma dumps and it hasn’t had any effect, they just get hit with a longer monologue.

        3. Zweisatz*

          Yeah, I would also check how much of these interactions are.. interactive right now. OP may have already started gray-rocking, but if they are still asking polite questions, try to move to statements “That sounds rough. How about that table row?”

  4. Annony*

    My old boss used to try this. With her, I found being non-sympathetic to be the best route. If she complained about her daughter stealing from her purse, I would respond “Wow. You probably shouldn’t leave your purse unattended around her.” If she complained about her husband not appreciating the theater tickets she bought: “Yeah, not everyone likes the theater.” Once she stopped getting the sympathy she was looking for, she stopped telling me personal things.

    1. Ayla*

      To me this seems a little harder to apply in cases like the ones LW mentioned of dead loved ones, dying pets, or outright abuse. “Yeah, brothers die, just got to get over it” isn’t something I would be comfortable saying to another person.

      1. Marion Ravenwood*

        I’d agree with this. I also suspect that if LW did take that approach, these guys would somehow turn it around on her and accuse her of being mean/callous etc.

        I think telling the boss/HR and grey rocking (‘sorry to hear that. Anyway, back to work’) is the way forward for now, at least until LW can find another job.

        1. She of Many Hats*

          One way would be to send the dumper to one of his coworkers. LW probably knows enough about all these guys’ lives to say “That sounds rough, Bob. Joe on your team is dealing with something similar. You should talk with him. That reminds me…Joe said you’re the guru on Spotted Turtle Conversions…”

          1. Chilipepper Attitude*

            I actually think you are on to something here! But not what you meant, I think she should start to tell them to talk to each other so that they all know she knows their feelings and it is possible she will tell other people what they said. Not in a gossipy way, but because she is so nice she is getting them to help each other.

            Not sure if that is clear, but make them afraid that their stories will be shared and I think they will stop sharing them with her.

          2. JJ*

            LW shouldn’t be talking about what various members of the team are going through to other members though, even if she’d rather not have either piece of information. These guys are sharing inappropriately, but that doesn’t give her a free pass on telling their business to a third person.

            1. Clorinda*

              Why not? These things came up at a work conversation at work. They violated their own boundaries, if they even have any.

            2. Chilipepper Attitude*

              I also say why not. But I don’t mean to actually share info or gossip; just put the fear of god in them that she might so they don’t see her as a good confidant any more.

            3. Gumby*

              I have to admit that the Evil-Me solution to this would be to start ostentatiously taking notes and muttering about their trauma stories making good plot points for the novel you are working on. Rude and inappropriate as all get out, but it’s not like they are following the rules of polite society either.

      2. TootsNYC*

        though, a less sympathetic response:
        “I’m sure you and your brother will work it out” is a slightly distant tone that says there’s not much more conversation you’re interested in.

        “Yeah, it’s always hard when parents get older,” and let your tone indicate a low level of interest.

    2. Jules*

      Yes, you could flip the advice on being a good listener. Give them a whole bunch of advice on how to fix the problem. Oh, you don’t get along with your step-father, you should try a fishing trip together, no maybe biking, hey have you heard of geriatric paragliding? Your hamster’s sick, oh my, let me tell you about my neighbor’s cat, he got hit by this car and was so stoned on the morphine they gave him…. You can sound like a nice person but totally unsatisfying to dump on.

      1. ferrina*

        Ooh, I like this advice too. Just talk over them with your “advice”. Give them the same courtesy that they’ve been giving you.

        1. Sasha*

          Oh my god, LW may be the only person on earth who would actually benefit from joining an MLM.

          “Sorry to hear about your dad, has he tried aloe vera juice? I happen to sell for Forever Living, let me get you a sample.”

          1. Warrior Princess Xena*

            I don’t know if this would be the most effective method in the long run, but boy would I want to be a fly on the wall for that conversation

      2. Low Sparrow*

        “What you really need is whole foods and proper hydration. Water is a big deal. I know we were talking about emotions, but listen: fruits and veggies are a big deal too.”

        1. Jellyfish Catcher*

          I like this. “I sympathize – fruits and veggies made handling things much better for me. Anyway,…. “

      3. Linda*

        I’ve had a lot of success with a version of this, where I respond as if their behavior is a fascinating sociological phenomenon, i.e., “oh wow, it’s really interesting that you’re talking to me like this! I was just reading a great article about how men have been socialized to say all sorts of inappropriate things to coworkers, have you ever reflected on how modern culture prompts you to self-sabotage by, etc… oh wow, look at the time, we better finish this up, I can dissect this conversation in the group chat later!”
        Be very chipper, and very interested. Take notes. Do not feel bad about how they’re having a hard time in life, they have better options than traumatizing their coworkers.

        1. Nicosloanica*

          I admit I did this with my neighbor, who I think automatically saw me and thought “women! They listen to my emotional problems!” (we were not very close and I was not the right person to share these things with). I just made it not very fun or useful to talk to me about this stuff with some deliberately bad takes.

      4. Starfleet HVAC Engineering*

        I doubt that would work with men like this. They see a young woman and immediately assign her “grief sponge” status. I’d be surprised if they didn’t expect the LW to decorate the office, plan parties, etc.

        1. Ellis Bell*

          Yep, LW should buckle in and prepare what to say when she’s asked to do all the no credit girly jobs. Mine is: “Ugh no, doesn’t Steve do all that party stuff?” or “Oh gosh, I really hate parties. What’s involved?” It’s a response I couldn’t have ever used for things designated as “real jobs” but it was okay because these were “not real work” anyway and they were just surprised I wasn’t happy.

      5. Despachito*

        Still too much emotional work, in my opinion.

        I’d express brief sympathy “oh, I am so sorry about your dad, it must be very difficult. Now about the Turtle Grooming report…”

        Also – how much time do these ventings take up of your work time? It seemed to me from the initial letter that they were used as a filling while they were waiting for something to load, so no actual work time was lost, and once it loaded the coworker hopped back on the wagon right away.

        If this is the case, I’d cut them a bit more slack; but if it was taking up the time we should be actually working, I’d probably try to let them say a few sentences, then interrupt them with a few words of sympathy and try to get back to the work issue. Unless they are really intrusive and thick, I think combining a bit of compassion and then gray rocking could be the solution.

        I must confess though that my advantage is that I am curious and think that learning some more information about my peers can be useful, and that I do not really care about strangers’ problems enough for them to be a burden to me – I cannot solve them and I have my own stuff to deal with. If OP feels she is prone to take over what they dump on her, it may perhaps require a different approach.

        1. Zweisatz*

          With the examples given, I wouldn’t want to learn this information in brief, ultimately irrelevant pauses either.

          “My dad has dementia” is on a whole other plane than “my child has a head cold”. I wouldn’t wanna be attacked by random bits of troubling information as well while just trying to do my job.

          I guess the off-putting part is the level of intimacy that these colleagues are forcing.

          1. ferrina*

            I don’t mind “my dad has dementia, so I may be distracted” or similar- just a sentence or two that lets me know what I can expect from my coworker (in this case, that they may be sad, distracted and/or exhausted, and this will likely go on for a while and get worse before it gets better). This isn’t emotional labor, it’s stating a fact. They state it, and you get to react however you react and move on in life.

            The emotional labor is often “My dad has dementia, and let me tell you about it/how I feel about it, and I want you to have a specific reaction, and I don’t care if you want to have this conversation with me- in fact, I will fastidiously ignore all social cues you give me.”

            1. Despachito*

              Yes, I agree.

              I think that SOME information is useful precisely because of what you are saying – if a coworker is struggling with an emergency in his private life, his work life is likely to be impacted too, and if I know I will definitely cut him some slack as opposed to if I thought he is just not pulling his weight for no reason, and s/he may appreciate a few kind words, too.

              I am thinking about what I would want to say to coworkers/hear from them in a similar situation if the roles were reversed and they would be the ones listening. I’d definitely be grateful if they let me BRIEFLY and OCCASIONALLY vent about an immediately preceding situation (ie if I come to work stressed out because my father with dementia passed out in his home and I had to take him to the hospital at night, it would be nice if I could tell someone and if that someone would tell me “oh wow, this must have been hard, do you want me to make you some coffee? I am keeping my fingers crossed for your dad”.)

              But doing that regularly and about a stuff dating back to my childhood? NOPE, no one deserves that, and in such a case I’d expect them to be much less compassionate and well within their rights to be baffled why I am talking about this and politely refusing to engage in such talk.

              So I’d expect it would be perfectly fine to behave like that if I am the one listening, too. Show some human compassion in certain situations but not fall for the BS that I MUST be the shoulder for everyone to cry on just because I am a woman.

              1. anon in affordable housing*

                I am probably guilty of what these guys are doing, because I didn’t get any education on boundaries as a young’un.

                However, now that I am an adult and have learned this is not appropriate, I’m getting pretty good at summarizing any “status report” information that I’m sharing just to explain why I’m off my game. Instead of a big explanation of what is going on with my landlord, “landlord’s making drama again ” or “ANOTHER kitchen fire in the building, nobody’s hurt, but I’m glad I wasn’t downstairs of the fire sprinkler flood. Only got 2 hours sleep before we were evacuated and they didn’t let us back in the building–sorry about the pajamas.”

    3. ferrina*

      Making yourself uninteresting or an unsatisfactory person to talk to can help. Annony’s way is pretty effective, and while I’ve definitely seen it work, I’ve also seen it backfire (always with unreasonable people who think you’re being cruel in not taking their side). If these guys are unreasonable (and it sounds like they are), sometimes you can mitigate this by playing the ditz. “Gosh, I just don’t get it. Why is that so bad?” Guys that have absorbed stereotypes about girls being emotional dumping grounds have often also absorbed stereotypes about girls being ditzy. (Note that I do not recommend this as a regular habit and this should never be first resort. This is more of These People Are Beyond Bananas and I Still Need to Function)

      You can also Grey Rock. It’s where you make yourself extremely uninteresting to talk to. There’s a lot of good advice out there on Grey Rocking techniques- I like Dr. Ramani’s video’s on YouTube, but there’s a lot of good resources.

    4. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      I have gone with the, “Oh, sorry, I wasn’t listening. Too focused on [Work Problem]. How do you [Work Question]?” and it works. Emotional dumps are less satisfying if the audience stops listening.

    5. Hannah Lee*

      With a friend who would emotion dump (and always only the negative stuff) I tried to imagine what he was getting out of the dump – sympathy, venting, whatever – and focused on making that stuff less available in my responses. It was a tricky path to walk, but after a couple of go rounds in different conversations, he started to look for that less and less from me (he wasn’t getting what he “enjoyed” about those dumps anymore so the dumps became less satisfying)

      Also useful for friends who never stop talking about an ex or ‘the one who got away’

  5. Pool Noodle Barnacle Pen0s*

    “Respectfully, from one professional to another, I have to ask you to stop talking to me about this. It’s none of my business, and it makes me uncomfortable. Thanks for understanding.” And document the instances, both of the continued dumping and the retaliation. If they keep it up, escalate to HR. Continuing interpersonal behavior after being asked to stop is harassment. (Not necessarily legally actionable harassment, but it’s still wrong and your employer should help you stop it.)

    1. Chilipepper Attitude*

      But this is only leading to the team refusing to help her. Sadly, she needs a workaround.

      1. EJ*

        But is the need to achieve the workaround her responsibility or her managers? If the entire rest of the company has to wait in the line they certainly can’t put expectations on her to consistently circumnavigate the line.

    2. DRHL 4*

      This is the best advice. You have to set boundaries. Obviously, this group does not have appropriate ones. Even, “I’m sorry, I’m not a councilor and you should seek professional advice.” It sounds harsh but it needs to be put in place to protect your own emotional health.

    3. Pants*

      I have to wonder if they’d dump on a male colleague like this. Instinct tells me they wouldn’t.

  6. Hills to Die on*

    What about:
    “Oh, I am so sorry to hear that. I hope it gets better.”
    “Hey, I really don’t mean to cut you off but I have to get to the shell specs. I am so glad you are in a better place now.”
    “Ugh, I am so busy today so I only have a couple of minutes – can you help me with shell specs real quick before my next meeting?”
    “I have to go but I will be thinking about you.”

    Soft nuclear option (Just trying to think outside the box?):
    “I am so sorry – I just come home crying from all of the heartbreaking stories I hear at work so my therapist said I should pull away for my own protection. It’s just too hard for me to listen and not be able to do anything to help my coworkers. I am so sorry. I am happy to give you my therapist’s name.’

    Gentle redirects are best for you. I think when done / said with sincere compassion they won’t be perceived as a slight. I don’t think it’s really your job to give out compassion like it’s a dish of candy on your desk but here you are and it sounds like it really behooves you to keep up a good rapport with these people.

    1. LTR FTW*

      Some good scripts here! The version of soft nuclear option I’d add is something like “man I don’t know how I wound up being seen as the team therapist here, I don’t know if you realize this but I’ve heard three other sad stories from you guys this week already. Can we try to keep things a little lighter, I don’t feel I’m equipped for all this heavy stuff all the time, and I’d really rather just talk about turtles?” — something along these lines that lets your coworker know he’s not the only one dumping on you.

      1. BohoBoohoo*

        I REALLY like this script. I think LW should call them out and this is perfectly kind, professional and reasonable.

      2. Bibliothecarial*

        I like this! It’s firm, kind, and something I could actually say were I in that situation. Totally going to remember that.

      3. Insert Clever Name Here*

        Effectively saying “it’s not because I hate you, Steve, it’s because YOUR WHOLE TEAM DOES THIS.” I like it.

      4. Chilipepper Attitude*

        But I think they will only refuse to help her and delay her work, as they have done in the past.
        She needs an option that will not upset them.
        Sigh, we have to tiptoe around men ALL. THE. TIME.

        1. Empress Matilda*

          The problem with that, of course, is she’s the one doing all the emotional labour not to upset her coworkers – they’re not at all concerned about upsetting her! (I know you know that, Chilipepper. I’m just saying it louder for the people in the back.)

          Still, I really like the script. I don’t think there’s a way out of this that won’t hurt their precious feelings, so OP needs to stop making that the goal. The goal now is to get herself out of this, period – the guys are going to feel however they feel about it, but that’s not your job to manage, OP. Good luck!

        2. MCL*

          I think the OP has to say something, though, and this seems like a kind and empathetic way to do it. If they still get pissed off and withhold their assistance, well, I feel like that actually might be a better or at least a neutral outcome at this point. It’s also (I sincerely hope) a wake up call to this team that their culture of over-sharing is not work appropriate.

        3. Pants*

          I wonder if it can be framed in a way that outlines the gender dynamic? Surely they don’t trauma dump on male colleagues. Responding negatively and retaliating by refusing to help the woman they’re dumping could potentially be a legal issue, no?

          1. HalJordan*

            From a management point of view, potentially, so I’d want whoever oversees the team to point that out (and also be better at managing in the first place, wow, these guys are already freezing people out of work resources due to “perceived slights”) but the OP shouldn’t use that framing or the work relationship will badly take a hit. They’re individually trauma dumping because OP is *nice* and has been emotionally available for this before, and if, suddenly, someone *nice* says “shut up about your dying brother and if you don’t you’re sexist”… that probably would not go over well! Of course that shouldn’t be OP’s problem, but to the extent that it is, she may need to mitigate it.

            I agree that saying “getting it from everybody is way too much” will probably work best; it might even strengthen their relationship in Bill&Steve&Whoever’s eyes, in a sort of “I am helping OP! OP’s so nice, she asked me for help and I am strong and can help!” kind of way.

        4. Aerin*

          It would be good to use this as the “tell them to stop” step alongside/before talking to your manager and going to HR. It gets the point across in a way that’s less likely to give blowback.

          If your work is getting slow-walked, apply the same advice Alison has used for when your boss is a chokepoint–make sure relevant managers/stakeholders are aware of the source of the issue. (“I’m still waiting on the admin team before we can proceed with the Turtle project. I’ve put in the request but no word so far.”) Who knows, maybe they can find a workaround or can put their own pressure on that team. But at least they’ll know you’re not just slacking.

      5. JustaTech*

        Yes to this! It’s possible (if not likely) that each guy thinks that he’s the only one who would be telling you this stuff, not realizing that his whole dang team is using you as a free therapist.
        (I only say it’s possible because I had a professor in college, a tenured professor who’d been at the school for years, who was genuinely surprised that every single one of our professors gave as much homework as she did, and that we stayed up all night doing homework, not goofing off.)

    2. Overstimulated sponge*

      I don’t disagree that soft redirects are best for maintaining a positive work environment, but if they are already emotionally dumping on her chances are they won’t get the hint or take any social cues (from personal experience with my own office over-sharer).

      Escalating to management is the best option imo. My guess is that this teams boss is so hands off the team is used to slacking off and talking about non work related stuff. I wouldn’t be surprised if others are having similar issues (even if they aren’t trauma dumping on other staff).

  7. June bug*

    No advice but OP, you did not do this to yourself! You should be able to make small talk and show empathy without getting THAT dumped on you. Now you know that isn’t possible with them, but it’s not your fault they took advantage of you acting like a human.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Right, I see OP saying “I engaged once to be nice so obviously this is my fault” and just please don’t put that on yourself. We all react to the situations we’re in without the benefit of hindsight, and being kind wasn’t a bad instinct. These coworkers are just wild.

      1. Marion Ravenwood*

        This. I think for women in particular (and young women even more so) it’s drummed into us from a young age to be nice to people, even when they’re doing things we’re not comfortable with, that we blame ourselves for responding in a normal human manner even if we feel we shouldn’t or we don’t want to. When actually the problem is that someone interpreted our attempt to be friendly and kind as an in to dump their problems on us or try to hit on us or whatever.

        OP definitely did nothing wrong and I’m really quite cross on her behalf that these co-workers are treating her like this.

        1. pope suburban*

          I agree, and I don’t think it helps that people tend to react harshly to anything short of coddling and free therapy. Some people will interpret a perfectly neutral, or even warm but noncommittal, response as cruelty or some kind of antisocial behavior. It sounds like these men are certainly doing that, if they are exacting revenge by holding up work over wrongs they did themselves in their minds. Holding a line only to be told that you’re being a monster isn’t fun and it certainly doesn’t help you figure out and hold good boundaries. It sucks and I’m eternally grateful that I hit a point where I’ll happily agree that yes, I am the worst, so horrible, anyway back to those reports! But I know that’s not always easy, nor does it come without consequence, so I wouldn’t expect that anyone adopt that strategy when it would harm them.

      2. Holly*

        Yuppppppppp. OP this is NOT your fault. You reacted like a normal empathetic human would and it is FULLY on them that they continued and continue to go past your extremely normal boundaries.

    2. BuildMeUp*

      Yes! OP, your coworkers are crossing boundaries left and right. It is not professional to dump emotional stuff like this on your coworkers, especially not at work. They talk over you and ignore you; it sounds like this would have happened regardless of your initial response.

      1. Tracy Flick*

        Yeah, plus, you already know these dudes will retaliate against you if you push back against unprofessional behavior. You are not at fault here – they are not be respectful or appropriate towards you.

    3. nonprofit writer*

      Agreed! As a woman, I find myself in a similar loop–on the receiving end of some unwanted behavior from a man, but then scolding myself for “letting” it happen. It’s so, so hard to get out of that loop. And honestly? June bug is right. We should be able to make small talk, show empathy, be friendly and kind, and not always feel like we need to have our guard up against this kind of stuff.

      It would be hard enough to be getting this kind of stuff from one coworker, but the fact that you are getting it from multiple guys is just beyond the pale. I really hope you can find a way to shut it down. I wish I had advice but I’m as stumped as you are about why people do this.

    4. Sparkles McFadden*

      Nope, nope, nope…not the OP’s fault. This happens all…the…time. Even if you just stare blankly you’ll get someone’s whole life story. One member of my staff asked me if the men crying in my office came in crying or if I did something to make them cry.

      I even tried “There are people who are good at the sympathy stuff, but I’m not one of them” and handing over an EAP pamphlet. I still had this happen to me. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t triggering in my case, just annoying.

    5. Wendy Darling*

      I’m female in a male-dominated field and I’ve noticed that this is A THING. Like to the point that I’ve had relationships with some male colleagues sour because I wasn’t willing enough to manage their emotions/be their personal therapists. Like they legitimately thought I wasn’t being a good coworker because I wouldn’t listen to their problems as long as they wanted me to.

      I don’t even think they’re doing it consciously, I just think the misogyny runs DEEP.

    6. an infinite number of monkeys*

      That’s what I came here to say as well. OP, please don’t blame yourself. This is totally not your fault.

    7. Lizard*

      Another in agreement – you didn’t bring any of this on yourself OP! You responded like a human, and they’re being jerks taking advantage of that. I do think there is a gendered element to this situation as it’s very likely they do not have the same types of conversations amongst themselves. It’s gross, but 100% on them.

  8. ecnaseener*

    I want to say you can go for the Stop in a warm tone, but you know these guys best. “Honestly, Dave, it feels like you’ve decided I’m your therapist for some reason. I think you should call the EAP if you need a sounding board, I really can’t be that for you.”

    1. pope suburban*

      I’m inclined to agree with this approach. In this position, I think I would honestly ask, “What do you want from me here?” Like…I am not a therapist. I do not know the people involved. We’re not even friends, we’re just colleagues. What possible reasonable outcome are they hoping for here? Ideally, being put on the spot that way would make them actually, for probably the first time in their lives, freaking think through something before opening their mouths. This is just so wildly inappropriate that even five seconds’ reflection should prevent it. Though I realize the problem here is compounded by the fact that they will, based on past behavior, act out and interpret rational confusion as some kind of mean behavior. If the rest of the company is functional, I might still do it and just make documentation so that when their refusal to do their jobs causes problems, I can point to when and why. It’s a hard position to be in if the rest of the company isn’t functional, though. In that case, I’d recommend polishing up the resume and looking for a place that has boundaries. That sucks and isn’t fair, but if they’re not going to change, then get out of Dodge.

      1. pamela voorhees*

        I would actually recommend against saying “what do you want from me” in a tone that’s neutral to nice, because a lot of the time, that question means “do you want problem solving or do you just want to vent”, and the answer is, they want to vent. It’d be a good question for reasonable people, but they sound like the sort of people who interpret any kind of question – even a sarcastic or rhetorical one – as license to keep talking

        1. pope suburban*

          Fair, and when I’ve said it, it comes out incredulous or clinical, depending. My experience has been that when I sound shocked, it jostles people into realizing that they’ve just been inappropriate. When it comes out like I asking them for an action plan, however- and I do persist with pointed questions if needed- they realize that I am not a therapist, at least. I grant that people probably do not feel terribly warmly toward me after this, at least some of the time, but universal popularity can’t be achieved and by the time we end up at that point, I’ve tried the softer choices several times to no avail. Someone who is naturally warmer in disposition than I am, or who is concerned about workplace fallout, should probably not employ this method. I thought I’d share it in case it’s useful, but I know there are a lot of times when it won’t work too.

    2. Lizard*

      I like this approach. It’s direct, and if the problem continues you can escalate to your boss with concrete examples of what you’ve tried to do to shut things down (just in case you get the run-around by your boss, who might want you to “work it out” yourself).

  9. els*

    Where’s your/their boss in all this? Have you tried filling her in on these issues? If they stop helping you because you set a reasonable boundary, have you tried going to your boss and saying “I’d like to get this done, and Hamlet isn’t giving me the information I need, so it might be a little delayed.” Lay it out like you did here in a way that focuses on how it effects the work.

    Because yeah, ugh, this sucks and it needs to stop! You can say the things you want to– “Please don’t tell me this” or “I’m trying to concentrate on work right now.” Does your job have an EAP? That you can remind them about every single time? Can you do it via e-mail or text or Slack, something like that?

    1. ferrina*

      Yep, I’d loop in your boss. You can say something like “Here’s the personal details I’ve had to listen to this week alone….” Your boss should be properly horrified (cuz this is ridiculous and wrong!). Your boss will ask you what you’ve tried.
      You tell them what you’ve tried, and ask your boss to help you come up with a solution. Ask your boss what you should do if they start shutting you out of work again.

      Then record this conversation by recapping it in an email to your boss. Hopefully this will be the end of it, but if things go badly, you’ll want this documented.

        1. hex*

          Wouldn’t it stir up a lot of other problems if the coworker started complaining about OP disclosing private information? Sure, anyone in the know would just go ‘then stop harassing her with all that stuff’. But this might paint a picture of her not being trustworthy.

    2. Critical Rolls*

      Your boss, their boss, and all the bosses should be informed so they can bring the hammer down. The trauma dumping is unacceptable, but the vindictive slow-walking of their actual jobs is a serious performance issue that their manager should want to put an immediate stop to.

      1. Empress Matilda*

        Yep. Loop in everybody you would in a functional workplace – your boss, their boss, HR. Then use the scripts here to tell the trauma-dumpers to knock it off. If they storm off in a huff – great! The conversation is over!

        If they refuse to give you information you need, take it back to your boss. In writing. Every. Time. If it happens six times a day, email your boss about it six times a day. Don’t cover up for them, or hide it from your boss or theirs. Be the squeaky wheel! Right now, this is entirely a you-problem, which makes it easy for the others to ignore. So make it a them-problem by showing them exactly what’s going on here.

  10. Ex-prof*

    Honestly I’m not sure why these coworkers are telling LW their problems.

    “Dead brothers…” The loss of a sibling at an early age is a huge thing to have happen in a person’s life and to have it dealt with so dismissively is certainly jarring.

    However, since LW doesn’t care, she should say so. “I don’t want to hear about your dead brother, sorry.”

    That should result in it never happening again.

    1. Hlao-roo*

      Honestly I’m not sure why these coworkers are telling LW their problems.

      I have a friend (female) who used to hitchhike, often alone. A lot of her friends and acquaintances would ask her “aren’t you worried about being picked up by a man when you’re all alone?” Her response: “no. I know exactly what men want: free therapy. I get a ride, and they tell me all their life problems.”

      I think there is a similar dynamic going on between the male coworkers and the female letter writer. Not all men, of course, but a lot of men avoid therapy and telling their (male) friends about their problems because they’re afraid of being seen as “weak,” so instead they look around for a sympathetic woman. My guess is the LW is an attractive candidate for this because she doesn’t know the other people in their lives (kind of like a therapist).

      1. Marion Ravenwood*

        Agreed. I think there is research out there that ties a lot of this into men’s mental health – they feel they can’t talk about these things with their male friends, so it all gets dumped on one or two women in their lives (usually romantic partners) and that then puts strain on the relationship. I’m willing to bet that these co-workers are using LW in a similar fashion, especially if there’s a significant age difference between her and them and/or they’re not married or otherwise partnered.

      2. Sel*

        Yep, this is exactly the case. It’s the same dynamic as when men expect women to cook for them and clean for them and pick up after them, just an emotional version of it. A friend of mine got so fed up with an older guy doing this to her at work that eventually she interrupted him mid sentence and said, “I don’t care.” He was so offended that he didn’t talk to her for 2 months and she said it was the best 2 months of her tenure at that company.

        1. Despachito*

          They can expect whatever they want – they are NOT getting it.

          I am definitely not responsible for anyone’s unreasonable expectations, and for me personally, it definitely IS the hill to die on.

      3. Contracts Killer*

        Yep. I had a coworker tell me about a very private matter within a couple months of knowing him. I asked why he was confiding in and seeking advice from me, and he said he had no one else. He didn’t want to share it with family and friends and it was about his wife, so that left no one else but coworkers.

    2. Stacy*

      I’m not sure why you have such a hostile take on this. First, there’s nothing to suggest anyone lost their brother at an early age. And work is not the place to bring your unresolved trauma anyway

      1. Seashell*

        I would saying losing a sibling before you’re old enough to retire is on the early side at least. I don’t think just mentioning that you had a sibling and they died is a sign of unresolved trauma. It’s unclear if the dead sibling just came up in conversation or if this guy was going on about how he cries every night or had terrible trauma related to his brother’s death. Just the mention of a person they never knew who had died shouldn’t send a functional adult into a tailspin.

        1. Jeebs*

          Sorry, did you actually read the letter? It is in fact clear that these aren’t just passing mentions. LW says explicitly that the dead brother (among other topics) was discussed ‘in graphic detail’ and that these conversational detours often take half an hour or more.

          Honestly confused on how anyone could read the letter and come away with the impression that LW goes ‘into a tailspin’ if someone makes a brief mention of someone deceased.

        2. Stacy*

          But OP is saying it isn’t just a mention of a dead sibling. It’s emotionally dumping on her while she’s trying to get work done. She says they’re being described “in graphic detail.” That’s not appropriate for work

    3. The Person from the Resume*

      It’s wierd that people are sharing these problems with a random coworker. But just because the LW is a woman, it does not mean an extra part of her job duties is to be an empathetic personal therapist for the men in the office to help them process personal difficulties and traumas.

    4. Spencer Hastings*

      “Dead brothers…” The loss of a sibling at an early age is a huge thing to have happen in a person’s life and to have it dealt with so dismissively is certainly jarring.

      So, anyone who’s ever lost a sibling should be talking about it to anyone and everyone? I’m not sure I follow. I think these are intimate topics that I wouldn’t want (most of) my coworkers to even know about, much less discuss. Bringing such topics up all the time is, IMO, more “jarring” — it’s like they’re trying to upgrade a Level 1 Acquaintanceship into a Level 7 Confidanteship within minutes.

    5. BuildMeUp*

      Oh, come on. The OP is paraphrasing/summarizing and trying to keep her letter short. She is clearly not using dismissive language when she actually talks to these guys. This is a really rude comment.

    6. EBStarr*

      Goodness, no. It is not “dismissive” or “uncaring” to want to get through the work day without performing free therapy for all of your coworkers. And everyone has something huge that they carry around with them. I’m sure LW has had losses and griefs of her own, which none of her coworkers have ever expressed any care or curiosity about. So why is she the jerk here?

      1. Dinwar*

        This.

        As I tell my wife, a person can only absorb so much horror. Everyone’s got a different limit. Exceeding that limit is functionally no different from exceeding the operational parameters of a piece of equipment–you can do it for a while, but each time you do you weaken the equipment and eventually it WILL break. Breaking someone’s mind is not generally considered a good thing, to put it mildly. We don’t come with instruction manuals, but getting to the point where you write to an advice columnist is a pretty good sign you’ve been operating in the red long enough to be worrying.

        From a managerial standpoint what these employees are doing to the LW is not functionally different from using the office printer as a punching bag. It’s a misuse of the resource and damaging to it–if not immediately, than certainly over time.

        To be clear, I’m not saying humans are machines. I’ve found it best–probably due to my own mental hang-ups–to frame mental health this way to illustrate the sheer stupidity of what some people expect. It changes the conversation from “I don’t like this” to “This is a problem that could impact the business in negative ways”. The respect we show inanimate machines serves as a hard lower limit to how we should treat people (obviously treating them better is preferred), and it frames the conversation in a way that most managers I know can understand. It also makes it MUCH harder to say “Suck it up, buttercup, that’s how things are.”

        1. Nobuttercups*

          Why did you tell her that? Seems a weird way to frame a comment. Does she have men lean on her at work?

      2. Stuckinacrazyjob*

        Nod. I’m upset by things people tell me at work and that’s actually part of my job! I can’t imagine just typing the turtle report and someone being like ( intense triggering story). I gotta prepare before people say ( stuff that’s triggering) to me

    7. inko*

      I don’t think this is fair at all. A lot of us have this sort of thing to deal with, and we shouldn’t have to pretend otherwise, but equally it’s just not OK to railroad our coworkers into a long conversation about our trauma when we both need to be focusing on work. The fact that LW is the only woman is significant here, to my mind. It’s not her job to provide emotional labour for the entire office.

      If there’s a general conversation about siblings and someone mentions the loss of their brother, then of course it’s appropriate to say ‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ and not ‘I don’t want to hear about your dead brother.’ It’s completely different if someone repeatedly monologues about their unresolved grief during the middle of a work task. It doesn’t mean they don’t deserve sympathy or need help, but they’re going about getting that help inappropriately.

    8. super anon*

      Whoops! Maybe ex-prof needs to study up on emotional oversharing at work, instead of lashing out at internet strangers. Do you have a counselor/therapist to talk to about your hostility?

    9. RKMK*

      LW’s coworkers are telling her their problems because they’ve ID’d her as a sympathetic young woman and instead of going to therapy with a professional they’re cornering her to handle their emotional maintenance.

      1. Despachito*

        But she DID act as a sympathetic young woman (and that is probably what attracts them to her and use her as their therapist).

        It definitely is NOT her fault, and to some extent it is the right thing to do – the problem is to recognize the point where it is getting obnoxious, and let them know that in a kind but very clear manner. And to do it on time because my experience is that if I let it go for some time, I build resentment which than transpires in my response which is unnecessarily harsh.

        What also helps me is to be convinced that I am well within my rights to put a stop on this and that I am not being unreasonable, which I find is pretty difficult if the person somehow insists that I am. Self-doubt is my worst enemy in this case (what if I am really too harsh/antisocial/whatever).

    10. Critical Rolls*

      “I don’t want to be the unwilling recipient of your trauma while trying to do work at work” is not the same as “I don’t care about your dead brother.” We are not entitled to unload heavy emotional ish on everyone around us, and is not okay to accuse people of being uncaring because they don’t want to be an unpaid emotional support hostage.

      I’ll go one step further, and say it’s okay for OP to actually not care, on a personal level, about her coworker’s dead brother. On a human level, sure. But demanding we have a deep emotional response to the death of every stranger we hear about — and then *perform* that response to the satisfaction of those who knew and cared about the deceased — is not reasonable.

    11. Charlotte Lucas*

      As someone who people often see as being compassionate, I completely see how this happens. I bet OP is perceived as a kind person (possibly just by virtue of gender alone). And the letter is quite clear about why this has been hard to stop.

      OP is trying to navigate being kind to herself while being kind to others with apparently no boundaries. That can be hard. And that’s why management needs to get involved.

        1. Empress Matilda*

          Yep. This is for the boss to deal with, not OP. She doesn’t have to listen to the trauma-dumps as the price she pays for getting the data she needs to do her work. If the team stops providing her with data, the correct response is not for her to go back to providing them free therapy – the correct response is for their boss to tell them they have to give her the data regardless of their personal feelings about her.

    12. anon for this*

      Are you a female ex-prof or a male ex-prof?

      Because as a female ex-prof myself, I sure got this, especially when young. “Alright, here you’re going to want to look at the discriminant of the matrix — ” “Prof, can I ask you something? My roommate is stealing my clothing and being abusive. What should I do?” “I need to take time off for an abortion, can we talk about my future?” “I think my coach is mishandling training, a lot of us are losing our periods and this one girl got a fracture.”

      And these young people had many more excuses than professionals in the workplace: they were searching for a safe adult to talk through difficult issues with. But…. my male colleagues (same age, same education, but taller) never got this. Ever.

      Being a good human is important but I was not equipped to handle a substantial amount of emotional counseling on things I knew nothing about personally or professionally on top of work. I didn’t get any additional time to deal with this student interaction, of course.

      For the LW/OP, expressing concern and redirecting to a professional is one way to continue. “Hey, I’m really sorry to hear about your family dynamics. This is way out of my league — are you looking for professional help? Our EAP offers some services, have you talked with them? Have you tried talking with other family?” allow 2 sentences, then change topic. “That sounds tough. Hey, I have a hard stop at noon — could I ask you another thing about the shell scripts?”

      1. CollegeEmotionalWreck*

        I’m laughing at this. My parents split up when I was in college, and I was a complete mess. I completely broke down in front of my male professor/PI. (He said he couldn’t pay me, and I completely broke because I was paying my way through school) He said, “do you have friends to talk to…?” – it was so awkward! Not helpful in the emotional sense at all.

        I guess in the end I got what I wanted – he did end up paying me!

    13. LizB*

      It’s not like the LW is saying outright to her coworkers, “Yeah, yeah, enough about your dead brother already.” She listed it as an example in a letter to an advice column in order to summarize some of the intense shit that’s getting dumped in her lap while she’s just trying to do her work. She knows it’s a huge thing! That’s why she’s uncomfortable hearing about it! Nobody owes their coworkers endless empathy, especially not as the price of actually being able to do their job.

    14. Pool Noodle Barnacle Pen0s*

      You seem to be under the impression that LW is wrong for not doing unpaid emotional labor for her coworkers. Allow me to correct you on that. It’s not her place or her responsibility to take on any “huge thing” in someone else’s life, and it’s not “dismissive” for her to push back and ask them not to trauma-dump on her during work time.

    15. Chilipepper Attitude*

      But the OP does not ONLY want it to stop, she wants it to stop without facing any retaliation in terms of work.

    16. codesquirrel*

      Oh wow, it is so nice to see someone who cares! I’ve had a lot on my plate recently with my daughter’s wedding. My 46 ex-wife 44 and I divorced when my daughter was three. My ex later remarried and moved to a different State. I had visitation and I tried my best to stay in my daughter’s life but eventually she just didn’t want to spend time with me. She had a good life with her mom and stepdad. I paid child support and sent gifts at Christmas time and birthdays. If she needed money for anything I would give it.

      I met my current wife 28 about five years ago. We were friends for a few years before she told me how she felt. We had known each other so long our engagement was very short. We were engaged, married, and expecting our son in one year.

      My daughter is now 25 and engaged. My parents asked me about my plans for the wedding and I didn’t have any answers because I didn’t know about it. I called my ex to find out what was up. She said that her husband was paying for everything and would be walking my daughter down the aisle. I know she doesn’t like that I moved on but she’s still my daughter and I always thought I’d be there on the most important day of her life. Being cut out is really bringing up a lot of emotions and I want to be there, but I don’t want to make the rift any worse. I’m doing my bets but I worry it’s affecting my ability to parent my child, and I’m worried I might not be the best partner right now, and it’s a lot. I’m not really sure what to do but it helps so much to be able to talk about it and maybe get some perspective from someone else.

    17. Worldwalker*

      “I need to concentrate on work matters in the office” is not dismissive — it’s *normal*

      If someone wants a therapist, they should hire a therapist, not dump on a random co-worker who may very well have their *own* traumas that they’re simply not discussing at work. Or maybe unload on each other, since they all seem to feel that unloading their emotional problems on co-workers is a good thing to do.

  11. Properlike*

    OP – I can’t tell if I’m misreading the sentence, or if you’ve only tried irritating them to get them to stop.

    What about a version of: “I have to ask you to stop there. I appreciate that you see me as someone to share with, but it sets up my own triggers about some personal stuff. Can we keep it to work talk right now?”

    And, another question: do you know for sure this is not how they interact with each other when you’re not around? We’re assuming, because men, that you are a target of “trauma dumping” when it might be the culture of this particular group?

    1. Witch*

      > What about a version of: “I have to ask you to stop there. I appreciate that you see me as someone to share with, but it sets up my own triggers about some personal stuff. Can we keep it to work talk right now?”

      I think this is how I would handle it, mixed with a bit of the Avatar meme “that’s rough buddy.” You can be empathetic to a point, but for example? I can’t handle death. I have PTSD around topics touching death and I’ll become scared/anxious if it hits me the wrong way.

      If they’re steamrolling you go ahead and cut them off with a swift, “Oh, I’m sorry but I can’t hear this. That sounds really rough and I hope you figure it out, but can we get back to the turtles?”

      1. bicality*

        Yeah, this is probably how I would handle it, too. Let’s say they are doing this in good faith, they really believe you are someone they can open up to (some of us just give off this vibe, for some reason). By appearing vulnerable (even without sharing any details), you are relating to them while still setting the boundary, which might help ward off a defensive response.

        As someone else said – should you have to soften this? Ugh, no. But pragmatism.

    2. Expelliarmus*

      Even if that is their culture, they are forcing it on someone who isn’t willing to this type of discussion for a long period of time, so in that sense, it is “dumping”

      1. Properlike*

        My understanding is she works in a separate area and has not said directly to them “this makes me really uncomfortable, please stop.” So they may not be aware that it is an issue.

        1. Not Your Trauma Bucket*

          The baseline assumption – especially at work – should be that people DON’T want to deal with your intimate trauma. If you’ve established that relationship with other coworkers, fine, but it absolutely should not be your default.

          1. Insert Clever Name Here*

            Yes, absolutely. And they coworkers *should* be aware it’s an issue. But part of the genius of clearly telling someone “this makes me uncomfortable, I need you to stop” is that now it is completely irrelevant if in the past the coworkers knew it was an issue because they are being told point blank “this is an issue.” No assumptions, no hiding behind “but I didn’t know.”

    3. Beans*

      I like the general idea do your script, but these coworkers w boundary problems do not deserve LW’s disclosures about their triggers. “I have to ask you to stop there and return to the task at hand” is enough.

      1. Librarian of SHIELD*

        It’s not about what the coworkers deserve, it’s about what the LW deserves. She deserves to work in an environment where she can accomplish her tasks without getting trauma dumped, and if a softer version of the statement can get her that with a minimal amount of relationship damage that would harm her ability to do her job going forward, I’m not going to blame her for using it.

    4. Soda Pop*

      I was going to suggest something similar along the lines of, “I’m sorry to cut you off, but I don’t have the emotional bandwidth for this kind of stuff right now. Can we talk about the turtle shells?”

      If they take that as a cue to ask if something’s wrong, you can just say, “Nothing you need to worry about. I’d appreciate keeping things light at work, though. Thanks!”

  12. EBStarr*

    Do you think you could set the tone before the next conversation with a frequent offender? Something like “I feel like our conversations have become very personal lately, and I truly hope the best for you, but I have been finding it really hard to context switch back to work mode after discussing heavy personal things. Can you do me a favor and help me keep things focused on work so I can be more efficient?” Then, when they start in on their litany of traumas, you can be like, “I’m sorry to hear that, but this is one of the things I mentioned — can we just talk about work?” so that you don’t have to explain it all in the moment right when they’ve said something incredibly personal.

    I obviously don’t think you should HAVE to softpedal the fact that they’re treating you like an emotional garbage dump. But since you are requesting a pragmatic solution, this is an approach I think could work with a lot of coding/engineer types by focusing on efficiency and you trying to “hack” how your own brain works. (Even though, in reality, the problem is that THEIR brains seem to equate “woman who needs technical information from me to do her job” with “captive audience for my emotional trauma.”)

    Love the line about the stepfather throwing away their tulips. You are a hilarious writer!

    1. Robert in SF*

      I agree with this advice above…I prefer to have difficult conversations not in the prompting moment, especially if it’s a building frustration like this scenario. It helps me focus the conversation on the professional insights and not emotional reactions [something the men described in this letter could certainly benefit from learning!]

      Maybe also include some additional context, “I won’t be much help at all with the issues (?)/topics/complaints/concerns you raise from time to time, so it’s best to focus on the questions at hand.” I would *not* apologize when having this conversation, although it’s natural for people to start off with “I’m sorry but…”. But these guys may take that ‘apology’ as regret you would like to address, instead of politeness and thus they may try to find a solution to your supposedly wanting to help but not being able to do it. “Oh that’s fine, you don’t have to help, just be a sounding board!”
      [This last part about apologies is my own bias as it were…grain of salt here obviously.]

      I do think that the stereotypes about men never talking about their emotions or about men never showing their emotions (except anger and lust) are really blown out of the water here! Unfortunately they seem to have swung the pendulum too far the other way. I wonder if they share with each other like this and not just OP.

      It’s a shame since connecting with your coworkers as people who have lives outside of work that can impact their work lives and their self-esteem (?) does benefit working relationships and exhibit common human decency of course. But these examples go beyond the pale unfortunately. :(

      1. bamcheeks*

        I do think that the stereotypes about men never talking about their emotions or about men never showing their emotions (except anger and lust) are really blown out of the water here

        Part of the way that works is that men don’t talk about it to other men, but do expect wives/ girlfriends/ female sexworkers/ loosely-defined female “friends”/ secretaries/ female co-workers at the same level or less senior/ women who happen to sit next to them on long train or place journeys etc etc as appropriate outlets for their emotions. It’s not actually “men don’t show their emotions”, it’s “men don’t show emotions in contexts/ to people they define as important or powerful, just to people they see as having less power or importance”.

        #NotAllMen, of course, but enough.

        1. Robert in SF*

          I suppose we hear different stereotypes, or maybe others get more nuanced explanations of those stereotypes than I…

          I have never heard this detailed context of emotional expression before, just the ones that wives or girlfriends complain that their husbands/boyfriends are stoic about emotional situations (e.g., close friends/family deaths, job or other losses, sadness, etc..) and don’t express themselves.

          I have also heard the stereotype that women think men don’t *have* emotions since they don’t express them like women do, but perhaps this is also a case of there being more nuance to it that I have not heard (yet).

          At any rate, I’ll ask my friends about this aspect you raise to see what I may have missed.

          1. Erie*

            Yeah, another data point for you to take back to your friends: this is a very well-known dynamic and has become a trope. A quick Google brought me to an article (one of hundreds) which I’ll share in a separate comment. I recommend poking around a bit – it’s definitely a thing.

          2. 1LFTW*

            Definitely check out the article Erie cited. The author gets into some of those nuances you mention. For instance, the woman whose partner doesn’t talk about his feelings – stoic, right? – but takes them out on the bedside table instead.

            IOW, when “wives and girlfriends” complain about men being “stoic”, they’re not referring to a state of zen-like calm.

        2. inko*

          Yeah, exactly. These guys have identified LW as an emotional receptacle. Emotional labour is lady stuff and hooray, here’s a lady!

      2. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

        The problem is that many men don’t listen to emotions–including each others’. So they go looking for a woman to talk to/at, whether that’s a relative or female friend or coworker or, yes, therapist. Women are expected to talk about emotions with each other, which at least can be balanced, but also to listen sympathetically to men without expecting reciprocation.

        It’s a cliche that men will talk about their problems to the bartender–that’s considered part of his or her job. They don’t expect the guy who just mixed them a drink to answer their emotional dumping with “yeah, I know, my family is the same way, in fact, when I was a kid my Dad used to…” and expect the customer to give them a reciprocal sympathetic ear.

        1. Elbe*

          Women are expected to talk about emotions with each other, which at least can be balanced, but also to listen sympathetically to men without expecting reciprocation.

          This is a great description of why the dynamics in this situation are so uncomfortable for women, or anyone in this situation. When things are reciprocated, it’s part of a healthy, balanced relationship where both people get a say in how the conversation goes.

          What’s happening here is that these guys are expecting sympathy and care and understanding about things that are, frankly, not appropriate for work. And they’re doing it while not even bothering to extend sympathy and care and understanding about how they are affecting the LW.

  13. I should really pick a name*

    What if you tried the “Stop, this is too much” approach, and then if they start delaying work for you, go over their heads. Don’t explain why you think they’re delaying, just say “I asked Fitzroy to process the softshells 3 days ago and it hasn’t happened yet, can you have him prioritize this?”

  14. ferrina*

    Find an excuse to walk away.
    “Sorry, I’m going to have to pause you so I can run to the bathroom.”
    “Huh. Hey, I’m gonna need some caffeine. I’ll be back in 5 minutes.”
    If you have to interrupt them, well, interrupt them! If you feel awkward, that’s because they are not following the rules of polite conversation (i.e., not frickin monologuing about super personal stuff to coworkers!). Return awkward to sender- “It’s that time of month and it won’t wait!” (I’m betting most of these guys will freeze as soon as you mention a period.)

    1. Roller*

      I think this or a variant of not engaging could help. They are giving you instructions, right? So instead of looking at them or seeming interested, eye contact etc, start looking down and making notes on the process and make it obvious you aren’t really listening much. You could even ask them to repeat themselves in a slightly off manner.

      Them: “My brother died when I was young…”
      You: Making notes on turtle processes, looking down and not really engaging, “What was that about your brother’s cat?”

      Just make the whole process unsatisfying to them and like they aren’t heard when they speak to you. It’s a bit sad that they feel you care, but make it look like you don’t and don’t engage well, and I think it could help.

  15. Hamster Manager*

    Can you make yourself cry on command? I can’t decide if an uncomfortably emotional response is better than grey rocking here…

    1. rinathin*

      Unfortunately, gender is almost certainly at play here, and OP risks being seen as incompetent if they seem “hysterical” (ugh).

    2. RIP Pillow Fort*

      Uncomfortable emotional response could be used against her.

      Being excessively neutral but otherwise workplace helpful is less satisfying but has less liability to how people see you.

    3. Amorphous Eldritch Horror*

      As someone who cries (not by choice, not on command) I would not recommend this at all. People are very unsympathetic to and harsh to women who cry in the workplace and LW is likely to suffer repercussions if she tries this tactic. It wouldn’t actually “return awkward to sender” as the saying goes. (Plus crying is *uncomfortable*)

  16. CharlieBrown*

    “Wow, that sounds like something you should talk to a therapist about. Do you have one right now?”

    1. pamela voorhees*

      I would say this, but also look deeply alarmed and freaked out. This is not normal, every day things that they’re sharing, and if you make it very visibly clear that they’ve said something absolutely wild, it might help them realize that you’re not going to coo over them – you’re going to be deeply freaked out. Wide eyes, disbelieving frown, and a sort of hesitant “wow, that’s — Greg, that’s really intense. You should be talking to a therapist about that. Do you have one? Do you know about our EAP?”

    2. Therapy was bad for me*

      Yo, I agree that LW shouldn’t be required to handle her coworkers’ trauma, but I also low-key hate the way that the standard assumption is that we should truck our problems off to a therapist, and if we don’t have one, we can go out and get one, like shopping for a new couch.

      What advice to “just get a therapist” tends to ignore is that bad therapists can do a lot of harm. We should be more cautious recommending therapy as the One Solution to emotional problems. It’s okay to refuse to handle those emotional problems, LW doesn’t have to, and IME shouldn’t, imply that their problems will be handled in therapy, because they may not be.

      1. CharlieBrown*

        I have always believe — and always stated — that therapists are just like anything else in life that you pay for (grocery stores, doctors, spouses, computers, etc.) you are not stuck with the first one you try. You can and should feel free to find another therapist if the one you are currently seeing is not working out for you.

        Not all therapists are created equal.

        And even if OP’s coworkers don’t have a therapist, and don’t intend to get a therapist, this still lets them know that this is something that OP should not have to handle as it is entirely out of their wheelhouse.

        1. Short’n’stout*

          “…therapists are just like anything else in life that you pay for (grocery stores, doctors, spouses, computers, etc.)”

          Did you really intend to include spouses in that list?

    3. Maisonneuve*

      I would edit this a bit and say, “Wow. That sounds like a lot. I hope you have some like a therapist to help you out.” The additional question might prompt more sharing.

      This letter struck a cord with me as someone who in her younger days was always the go-to person for emotional sharing among her friends and colleagues. Strangers too. I’ve had them tell me all kinds of things in the food court, on the train, etc. It made me study psychology and conflict resolution. It also led to me closing myself off quite a bit. If this is happening in other parts of OP’s life, I hope they find a better way to balance the open vibe they give with self protection.

    4. learnedthehardway*

      Agreed – it works in a wide variety of situations, too. If they say they don’t have a therapist, do some advocating for them to seek one. “A therapist can help you process these issues, and is qualified to help.”

  17. Ann Ominous*

    You could say “oh wow, I think maybe you meant to send that to someone else like our EAP? I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable if you discovered that you had accidentally disclosed all that trauma to someone who isn’t trained and is just a coworker, so I thought I’d let you know you accidentally sent it to me”

    1. Lexi Lynn*

      Ok, I admit I can be a nasty person sometimes, but I’d start sharing the trauma. When one person starts in on their trauma of the day, sympathize about how hamster-guy is having troubles too.

      Rinse and repeat until you get called on it for sharing personal information. Then in an innocent way as you can, be very puzzled about how you had no idea it wasn’t public and why would they have shared something that personal with you.

      1. Water Hyacinth*

        Oh no. When she gets called on it, it *will* reflect badly on her, and no amount of “they started it” will change that. Two wrongs just make two wrongs, and moving a situation from NTA to ESH is not a fix.

      2. Ann O'Nemity*

        I’m not sure I’d recommend the sharing personal info route, but I wonder if there’s a way to push these guys to start leaning on each other. So maybe it’s something like, “Wow, I’m sorry to hear about your dad. Have you talked to your coworker Bob? He’s a really good sounding board for stuff like this.”

        1. HalJordan*

          Eh, but—Steve and Bob are already on the same team, and if Steve wanted to trauma-dump on Bob he either would have done so already or is doing so already (maybe their entire team is just a horrible boundary-less nightmare and OP’s just getting a glimpse).

          OP could keep redirecting them to each other, maybe, but that’s not so different eventually from “stop telling me this”, which she says she’s trying to avoid.

  18. CatCoworkers*

    OP, this is not your fault at all! I would definitely loop in your boss, at least so that if there is another “perceived slight,” your boss knows who is to blame. I was slightly confused: is HR telling you to lower your voice or is that your coworkers? If it’s not HR, maybe you could loop them in just to create a paper trail?

    1. sav*

      I could me misinterpreting but I read that line as OP is telling coworkers jokingly to lower their voice so HR doesn’t hear/they don’t get reported or put in coaching for talking about such intense stuff at work.

  19. Not sure what to do*

    I would agree with distancing. General team or project group – so more than one person can see the reply. Use Email and send project plans, have a preplanned agenda sent to them. Have the meeting in a room with a strict timeline i.e. it’s only booked for half an hour.
    Failing that, invent your own trauma? My gran used to discuss her medical issues to everyone, do you have an elderly relative you can “borrow” ailments from?
    Or play the “topper”, whatever they say you “top”, your uncle fell down the stairs, mine fell down 10 flights of stairs.
    Or say I can’t cope with this and burst into tears, repeat until they stop?
    If all else fails – Duct Tape!

    1. Starfleet HVAC Engineering*

      Male CW: “My uncle fell down the stairs.”

      Me: “Yeah, that sucks, my uncle solved the Lament Configuration and got pulled apart by chains summoned by the Cenobites. His ending was exquisite.”

  20. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

    When someone is dumping their emotional baggage on me and I don’t feel it’s appropriate or something I want to take on, I just ask “What does your therapist say?” Often they are not seeing a therapist but the question plants the seed that a) they do need help with this, and b) that help should not be me.

    1. HugsAreNotTolerated*

      OH. That’s EXCELLENT!!! I’m going to start using this. And if they get snippy, I can just say “If you truly wanted help with this you’d talk it out with someone who has the knowledge to help you rather than me.”

    2. Sasha*

      You can also try the coaching/return of responsibility method: “oh what have you tried so far? Nothing? Really? Nothing at all? What do you think might work? Nothing? Oh dear, hopefully you’ll come up with something soon!”

      The idea is that you don’t take on any responsibility for fixing the problem yourself (or even taking on any responsibility for soothing them, or getting emotionally involved).

      Obviously if you are actually coaching somebody you try to get them to come up with their own ideas, but in this case I’d just shrug and go “oh well, sucks to be you I guess!” and try to move back to work.

  21. Clobberin’ Time*

    Find a way to ease into a different team or start job-hunting. Your co-workers are not just oversharers, they’re petty and vicious. “They took a month to help my boss with access because of some perceived slight” – that’s your BOSS. Imagine how they will treat YOU, a newbie, if you displease them in any way.

    1. Emily*

      I agree with this. “My coworkers overshare” is a problem about your coworkers, but “and I don’t feel comfortable firmly telling them to stop because then they would stop doing their jobs in ways that I need to do my job and I’m not confident my boss or anyone else would fix this” is REALLY BIG problem about your organization.

      1. goddessoftransitory*

        Agreed. “My coworkers overshare” is the equivalent of “my family is really tough to deal with on holidays.” Exhausting and ongoing, but a discrete issue. “Also they have no problem not doing their jobs and my bosses don’t seem to have an issue with them blowing up my deadlines and projects” more equals “My family keeps setting my house on fire when they come over for Thanksgiving.”

  22. Former Gifted Kid*

    I wonder if something like “I’m glad you feel comfortable enough with me to share that, but I really don’t think I am the person you should be talking to about this. I’m just here for Turtle data. Do you have anyone else you can talk to?” Or “This is really something you should be talking to a therapist about, not your coworker.”

  23. NaoNao*

    You can try giving bland, glib, vague responses like “That’s crazy” or “Wow, it is what it is I guess”, “Turtles all the way down, eh”, “One day at a time” “Wow, answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind”–probably the more non sequitur the better.

    If you try that and it doesn’t work, you could go the quizzical George Clooney Friendly Confused Head TiltTM and ask nicely: “No offense, but why are you telling me this? Seems like this is a conversation much better suited to your therapist.”

    I personally wouldn’t skip straight to “cut it out” harshly as that can result in hurt feelings and people freezing you out—which isn’t fair or right but in reality could happen.

    1. MsM*

      I find “Wow, I don’t really know what to say about that” is a useful way of expressing “I hear that you’re going through a lot right now, but I’m probably not the best person to go to if you want sympathy or advice.”

    2. Ann O'Nemity*

      The bland, glib, vague response works really well for me when people are oversharing. I’ve had super good luck with, “wow, that’s the worst.” Divorce, hemorrhoids, speeding tickets, colicky babies – “wow, that’s the worst.” Somehow it seems to maintain the relationship and satisfy the sharer’s desire for sympathy without inviting any more discussion.

  24. Esmeralda*

    You will have to say: “Stop, this is too much” or “It’s really weird you’re telling me this”. Or, “I’m sorry [even if you aren’t, say so *the first time* but not after that], but we need to stay focused on work. I am very uncomfortable hearing about your personal life and you have to stop telling me about it.”

    If they roughshod over that: “I’m uncomfortable hearing this and you need to stop.”

    If they keep going: “You have to stop telling me this right now.”

    And then, “OK, I guess we are done talking about [work topic]. I need to get back to [urgent work task], the deadline is looming. Good bye.” [hang up, leave, turn off zoom, whatever]

    Document everything. Not on your work computer.

    If they stop helping you, then kick it to your boss. It’s your boss’s job to assist you with BS like this. If your boss is not helpful, kick it to HR.

    Look, first of all they are being completely inappropriate. Second of all, they are wasting work time. A lot of it. And they’re causing you distress , which is also a cost to your employer.

    And yeah, they are having legit issues, things that as a human being I feel compassion about. That doesn’t mean you have to waste your time, thought, and emotional energy on them. Myself, I feel a lot less sympathy for people who will not stop using their colleagues as their own personal therapist or emotional trashcan. At this point my assessment of them is, you’re a bunch of self-absorbed assholes.

    1. Generic Name*

      I agree with all of this. And if they retaliate by being slow, or non-responsive, you can loop in your boss. Although I’d argue you need to loop in your boss now. If your boss says you have to be your colleagues emotional helpmeet, that’s important information to know, and I’d strongly advice you job search.

  25. I edit everything*

    Probably this isn’t a great idea, but what if you got a pair of Freud-style glasses, and when they start going off on a TMI tangent, you say, “Oh, wait–let me switch to my therapist role,” and pull out your specs and settle in for the full story. “And tell me about your relationship with your mother…”

    I wonder if they realize they’re even doing it, and this would let them know in kind of a funny, non-confrontational way. But they’d need to have a good sense of humor and be able to laugh at themselves. Which might be expecting too much from that crew.

  26. Anya the Demon*

    I see your dilemma! You don’t even get a chance to stop them until they have dumped a good chunk on you, and if you handle it wrong there will be work repercussions for you. None of which is remotely fair to you. Given that they even iced your BOSS out, I think you have to tread very carefully. It’s all ridiculous and unfair.

    First thing I would do is start applying for new jobs. You’re working for a company where a group of people have the power to ice out their BOSS if he irritates them. Emotional dumping aside, that’s some crazy dysfunction and a major major red flag. Get your resume out there. Start hunting aggressively because nothing is ever going to really going to get better at your company if you don’t have an efficient management system.

    Second, the obvious solution would be to address this head on (hey, I just am not up for hearing all this…) and then go to your boss when they stop performing their job duties in order to punish you… but we know that won’t work since they even do that to your boss. That’s why you’ve just got to get out of there.

    In the meantime, I think you have to fake reasons why you can’t listen. Go into meetings with “Oof, I am in such a time crunch! Let’s see how quickly we can get through this!!” Every. Single. Time. Be friendly, light, just always SO SO rushed, SO sorry. No time for chit chat. Story of woe starts up? Pretend they are talking about their grocery list. Politely interrupt. “Ugh, SO sorry!! I’m just in SUCH a time crunch! Let’s get to those snapping turtles!”

    But really, get out of there. It sounds like you have a desirable skill set, a strong work ethic, and an approachable personality. Find a company with a boss that doesn’t tolerate his workers icing him out when they’re annoyed at him. That’s the real issue here – that you have a boss that won’t be able to ever enforce anything with these guys.

    1. Nicosloanica*

      I agree about the new job. This is one of those things when you’re the only woman on a team. It’s hard to explain and you’re going to sound overdramatic if you try to take it up the chain, particularly as you’ll be seen as “failing to perform female niceness” correctly. But you are Othered in this job. A new company with better gender equality is worth keeping an eye out for. I doubt this is the only manifestation.

  27. Office Sweater Lady*

    Other commentators have given some good advice, so I will just add one other consideration: You say your org will only give admin access to this particular group. Could you make the case that you have to have admin access, too? Even without the other issues, if you routinely require outside intervention from these folks to do regular tasks of your job, it is time for you to have access of your own. While it is understandable that not everyone should have admin privileges, some exception should be made for people with work specific requirements.

    1. nnn*

      Building on this, in making a case to be granted admin access, you could mention how long these meetings take (including trauma dumping time!) and compare that to how long it would take if you could just do it yourself.

      1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

        This one is huge. LW, try this formula: number of people x length of meeting x $100 per hour. (That last number should be going up, honestly. Wages have increased since I first ever saw this formulation.) That is how much each of those meetings is costing THE COMPANY.

        So if something that COULD take 5 minutes (2 x 5 minutes x 100 = $10) is actually taking 30 minutes (2 x 30 minutes x 100 = $100), that’s a lot of unnecessary expense. And how often is this happening every week? It sounds like it’s at least daily? Plus the opportunity cost of how much you aren’t getting done in that wasted time?

    2. MsM*

      Ooh, you could even say part of the reason you’re asking is that the group seems kind of overwhelmed, since they keep venting to you about everything they’re dealing with when you’re just trying to get X done.

    3. Starfleet HVAC Engineering*

      Good idea, pitch it as a six sigma efficiency improvement to make it sound smarter, too.

    4. thelettermegan*

      This is great advice! Database languages are relatively easy to learn and can be fun for an inquisitive mind.

    5. goddessoftransitory*

      Absolutely. If management is actually invested in running the company, this is a completely reasonable request.

    6. JessicaTate*

      YES!! And, since your boss has experienced the a-holery of this group (having been iced by them / their boss before), maybe that would prompt him to go to bat for you on this — the access, not the emotional dumping ground thing — because it’s arguably the easier problem to solve and make a case for.

  28. Gary Patterson’s Cat*

    Ooo wow! Either this is a company where people are used to over sharing, or it’s an effect of the pandemic and remote work with people desperate to talk… to anyone.

    I think that you just need to be more firm to cut it off. Like “Wow! I’m sorry to here that, but it’s getting a little too personal for me to hear. Can we refocus on our work please.”

    1. Gary Patterson’s Cat*

      Maybe also distance and don’t even go down the “How are you doing” road that invites too much conversation.

      1. debbietrash*

        +1
        I started in a new office 5 months ago and I’ve found myself falling on invisible word-landmines with some of my office mates. A colleague was leaving for the day, said the usual “Have a good night” to which I replied “you too” and immediately got a response of “Not likely!” and they then went on about their mother’s recent health issues (valid, but not something that I need to hear about when you’re heading out the door — or ever?).

        I understand it’s a big social norm to have these kinds of pleasantries, but I think capping communication to “hey there!” and “thanks so much, bye now” might help on the small scale. Otherwise I’d echo the advice of others to see if you can get around needing to go to these colleagues, and advocating that you learn some of these processes/gain admin access.

        So sorry that you’re dealing with others’ trauma dumping.

      2. Allonge*

        I had some success with ‘how are you so I am curious about this [work thing]’, like direct segue, no need to answer.

      1. Gary Patterson’s Cat*

        I’ve noticed an uptick on these things after the first year of WFH. Like being on the phone makes people unashamed to talk… about anything. It seems odd there are so many at one workplace though, usually you get only one of those.

  29. Spencer Hastings*

    If it were me, I would be asking my boss if there’s a way to do some of this stuff myself, or learn to or get access or whatever, without involving these people. Or, at the very least, not having to meet with them in real time.

    (It sounded like it was pulling reports and that kind of thing, but of course if that’s just an anonymization and you need to interview people, this wouldn’t apply.)

  30. oh no*

    wild card response: trauma dump back. if they try to talk over you just keep talking like you can’t hear them. bonus points if you can play trauma olympics. bonus bonus points if you somehow work menstruation and/or pregnancy into it.

    (this is not a serious suggestion. unless….? anyway your coworkers suck and i hope you can find a better job)

    1. Massive Dynamic*

      Bwuahahaa I’d be tempted as well to offset any personal medical things they might bring up with a Woman’s Trouble.

      But the better solution is probably Grey Rock – as in, make “oh wow that’s crazy” noises at them but with NO follow-up questions about whatever their sad thing is that they’re dumping on you. Break the emotional payoff for them to dump on you. And heck yes if you have any sort of EAP then tell them to check it out each and every time they dump. Or if you don’t, tell them that they’d really be served by outside therapy, which has helped you in the past. Teach them to expect that their overshares lead to no dialogue from you on their specific situation and a strong referral to therapy, each and every time.

      1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        The tough thing is it sounds like they will just monologue without needing any encouragement from OP. She’s even tried the “oh wow, that’s tough, anyway about Work Topic” thing and that hasn’t been successful.

    2. Ann O'Nemity*

      Oh my goodness, this made me chuckle.

      Oversharer: My dad has dementia. He always preferred my brother anyway.
      LW: I have cramps and major PMS right now.
      Oversharer: … um, so about those snapping turtles….

    3. Esa*

      Love a good wild card response sometimes! Used carefully, it can be a real two birds with one stone solution because it can surprise people and be a bit of a shock back to reality while also making their emotional dumping dissatisfying for them and, hopefully, discouraging them from deviating from work talk in the future. I’m a fan of mundane topics that are dramatized “I had the worst afternoon on Monday too! I was expecting a package to be delivered but it’s been held up and then I went to make dinner and can you believe I was completely out of spices!”

      I have a lot of clients who complain about government departments we work with and I’ve found a surprising amount of success by responding with “oh don’t even get me started on X department because I’ll never stop!”. 100% of the time it works every time!

      Good luck OP! Try to see the ridiculousness and humour of the situation so it doesn’t wear you down, I can guarantee you’ll at least have some good party anecdotes for the future. I’d try to have fun with it and experiment with different responses…

    4. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      I was going to jokingly suggest the same thing. But it should only be about stuff that will gross these men out. Periods, pregnancy, childbirth stuff, your mom’s warts, the time your friend had norwalk virus and So Much Gross Stuff happened. (I would give you the details, but it’s nasty and I don’t want to subject people to that by surprise).

  31. I edit everything*

    Could you go in with a “Hey, Fauntleroy, just a heads up: I have a really tight schedule today, so I need to stay on task and not get bogged down in chitchat.”

  32. I.T. Phone Home*

    I don’t like to get into conspiratorial thinking, but is there any chance this is a weird hazing thing or some kind of organized prank? It’s extremely bizarre that six different men from the same department (who have already engaged in passive-aggressive jockeying with your boss) would all independently decide to trauma dump on you.

    1. L*

      As a woman in computer science who men view as “nice”, I actually don’t find it that weird at all. It happens to me alllllllllll the time.

      I actually don’t really mind it though tbh. But everyone’s different and if course lw shouldn’t have to listen to it if she doesn’t want to.

      1. pamela voorhees*

        Yep — I promise you that it (unfortunately) happens to women literally all the time. Ask any female presenting cashier about what random men will tell her.

      1. I.T. Phone Home*

        I know that doing this “innocently” is a pretty common male bad behavior, but I think this might not be innocent. I think they might like making her uncomfortable. I would feel very differently if the letter writer experienced this with different people in different contexts around her workplace. It’s pretty weird to have this problem only with men who work in one department, and it’s ALL of the men who work in that department, every time you interact with them, multiple times per week, and it’s all happening after they’ve stonewalled your boss for a month.

    2. Seashell*

      It sounds more likely that the guys the OP are talking to are older, so their chit-chat is more parents with dementia and dead siblings rather than a 20-something talking about their new apartment or how they’re going to hit the bars this weekend.

    3. Generic Name*

      You are absolutely on to something. The organized hazing/prank the LW is experiencing is also known as The Patriarchy.

  33. R*

    I think you have an opportunity to cut them off right at the turning point of these derailing conversations, when they say “I was having a hard time too.” Using “I’m sorry to hear that, hope it gets better soon!” makes sympathetic noises without asking a question, so that when they continue you can then redirect to “oh I have to knock this out ASAP due to other tasks, let’s talk about X.” If they still continue beyond that, which I suspect they will, it’s very clearly an egregious distraction from work and can be brought to your boss for resolution.

    1. Katiekins*

      Hard as it might be to do, I would try to avoid even getting near “how have you been.” Come with a list of questions for those down times. Any time there’s a pause, jump right to “so I have a question.” or “I’ve been meaning to ask. . .”

      Or have a set piece you’re going to talk about: did you watch (tv show)? I loved the character of X, but didn’t like how they handled Y. Basically take up the airspace with a bland monologue.

      It still sucks and is emotional labor to even have to do this, and I’m sorry you’re in this position!

  34. inko*

    Oh god, this sounds awful. And so hard to shut down. Argh.

    I think in situations like this I tend to go for ‘I’m so sorry to hear that,’ and a redirect – sympathy without inviting any kind of expansion – but if someone’s determined to steamroller you, they don’t need an invitation. Or a rueful ‘oh man, families, eh?’ can set the tone that you also have struggles and are not the workplace TherapyMom.

    Having an EAP or something ready to suggest is probably useful. With one friend I ended up disclosing that I’ve been in therapy and found it really helpful, partly as genuine advice and partly to try and indicate that I myself am NOT a therapist and our interactions cannot all be about me helping her process her stuff. But then there are extra considerations when it comes to doing that at work. Ack.

    I think the above suggestion to use chat software rather than meeting in person where possible is a good one.

  35. Butterfly Counter*

    At an old job, there was a running joke when someone overshared, “Sounds like a personal!” As in, “It sounds like a personal problem that you shouldn’t be taking to me.” This was all joking around, but it did help keep some things professional.

    Perhaps a kinder, gentler approach, “That sounds personal,” said with empathy. You can convey that you do feel for them and their issues while underlining that you don’t really have a way to comment on such a heavy issue.

    1. Butterfly Counter*

      My other suggestion is just to check out mentally when they start with the TMI. They’re probably waiting for sympathetic sounds or they just need to unload. If the stop hearing the sympathy, it might make them stop. If not, at least you didn’t have to listen very hard.

  36. LISA*

    I am curious if this is a post-Covid issue. Since we have returned to in person, I am finding that many people have lost their filters and tell me the wildest things too. I generally just listen, but it can definitely be in the range of way too much info and sometimes too much time. There are a lot of really major mental health results from the isolation that are coming up especially in the late teen, early twenties (attempted/suicide rates at colleges are multiple times normal). I figure the oversharing will eventually shake itself out.

    All that to say, I suggest kindness, but a gentle but firm, “hey, I have a lot of empathy, but I have to keep more to work stuff at work. I hope you understand.” Then go back to work.

    1. Lora*

      This used to happen to me a lot in all-male offices pre-Covid. My boss remarked on how much happier and productive I seemed to be working remotely, how I was turning around projects in record time, days instead of weeks. I said yeah, it’s because I don’t have to be the therapist for five over-sharing men every day. He replied, “Well, I know X likes to chat a lot, but…” I explained, no, it is not just X who likes to chat – it is Y, Z, A, and B as well. All day. In the office, I get perhaps at most two productive hours. At home, with the barrier and written record of IM software, I get close to eight uninterrupted hours where I don’t have to listen to people’s personal problems all day. It’s not that they can’t reach me for work requests – they certainly do, without any problem – but they don’t want to write out in an email about how their wife doesn’t love them anymore and they’re only together for the kids, or their sibling watched a TV show that upset them or whatever. I can actually do my job instead of listening to them monologue. The additional six hours per day of focus is very helpful and good for my mental health as well since I’m not expected to do a lot of emotional labor. Boss was very quiet for a while and then agreed I could continue to work from home, as the times when he had come into the office or sat in on discussions, he had heard the men dumping their personal crap on me and thought it was not very appropriate but wasn’t sure what to say in the moment.

      It’s a thing. Heck, it’s a whole meme on TikTok…

      1. Despachito*

        Wow that seems a LOT of time regularly lost.

        It seems that you did do a lot of emotional labor for them, for many hours, every day, even if it was very unplesant to you and detrimental to your work. Why? Was it difficult to refuse/was there a risk of retaliation/did you feel that you should lend them a shoulder to cry on because you are a woman/ any other reason? I am torn here because I hate victim blaming and I do not want my question to be interpreted as such, but on the other hand I am itching to ask “why didn’t you simply tell them to cut it out, but put aside your work and listened to them”?

        1. Lora*

          -It was difficult to refuse (thank you, open office where I sat directly across from them and was within constant line of sight)
          -They were only sorta-kinda my peers, and we worked together on projects daily, and the whole goal of sitting us together was because we came from different disciplines and it was expected that we would need to constantly check with each other on these projects which often were HIGHLY multidisciplinary. Think about a construction project for a really big commercial building: you’ll have electrical engineers, civil engineers, environmental engineers, HVAC and plumbing, all working on the same building and needing to coordinate and check in with project managers constantly. Being unavailable for a quick question and “drop everything and rework this with new parameters,” when a project can go sideways in 15 minutes, was just Not An Option, but then every single question turned into two hours of monologuing, as OP describes.
          -360 degree reviews.
          -They frequently expressed their disrespect, disregard for, and anger with a female senior VP who was realistically just business-like and brusque but not especially friendly. She wasn’t actually mean, but she was focused on the work and didn’t say a whole lot outside of work tasks. This made her an ice-cold megabitch in their eyes, and they openly disliked working with her. Since she was their boss, I didn’t stand a chance of getting along with my colleagues if they could barely tolerate her.

          1. Despachito*

            Thank you for the reply. This seems like quite a toxic environment, and those people big asshats. I am sorry you had to deal with those.

      2. goddessoftransitory*

        The part “And thought it wasn’t very appropriate but wasn’t sure what to say in the moment” really sums up a huge part of the problem. Managers go in thinking they have to handle business problems, not personal ones, and when Steve in Accounting has clearly cornered Allison and is dumping his relationship woes in her lap as she’s trying to get to the copier, they can’t mesh “oversharing personal stuff” with “is completely wrecking Allison’s work schedule as well.”

  37. Cthulhu's Librarian*

    One trick I’ve found useful for this sort of thing is pre-scheduling a meeting so that you have a hard stop time to finish up on whatever the task is, and saying “Guy, I’m sorry to hear that – but I need to redirect us to X, because as I told you in my initial email, I need to be in a meeting in 20 minutes.”

    I’ll be interested to see the tricks others have.

    1. LW Turtle Analyst*

      Devious, so very devious. I’ve done this once with a very verbose coworker, and it worked like a charm. I bet I can pull it again.

      1. Guacamole Bob*

        Here’s a secret: you probably don’t even need to have an actual hard stop. Having focus time on your calendar, a call you need to make, an email or chat message you see come in you have to attend to… you can assert boundaries and you don’t have to answer to the other person about the details of what you have to rush off to do.

    2. sometimeswhy*

      This one’s great. I deployed it with my previous boss and it almost always got me free of him. With an apology, even! He never did stop trying, though, including after he retired. But at that point I was able to block his phone number and that took care of it once and for all.

    3. MCR*

      Came here to say this, but don’t wait until they launch into the therapy session. You email them or show up and say “hey guys, I really need your help on this but I [have a hard stop 20 mins for now/only have a couple of minutes because I’m really swamped/etc].” If things start derailing, interrupt with “I’m so sorry to cut you off, I just want to make sure we fit this in before I have to get back to [meeting/work] – can you scroll back to the Turtle Shell page?” When the task is done, say “Thank you so much, and so sorry I had to cut you off before – I really hope things start to brighten for you.” Harsh but necessary for your sanity.

  38. Pocketgnome*

    “Hey, I really like chatting and working with you and that sounds really hard, but I’m not the right person to be telling this.”

    1. anonymous 5*

      I am a *huge* fan of “I’m not the right person for this…” It’s usually easiest to deploy when someone asks for my input (as opposed to just unloading emotional diarrhea onto me) but it can also function reasonably when the unloader just pauses.

      But even better, in my own experience, adopting the willingness to tell others that I’m not the right person has ALSO helped me lose the guilt over giving grey rock-esque responses. So I’m more likely to respond to “Yeah…I’ve been having a hard time out of work too…” with a more noncommittal “Oh.” Doesn’t necessarily fix the problem of these dudes trying to unload, but it DOES reinforce that the unloading is their fault, NOT yours!

  39. sarch*

    I’m wondering if there are some work arounds where you can at least avoid the worst offenders. Are you able to become an admin? Maybe your boss could help with that. Or if there is one person who is better/less likely to retaliate, maybe have one person appointed to help you? Even if you can limit your involvement with these people it may help. You might still get some of this happening, but hopefully on a less frequent basis.

  40. starsaphire*

    I confess I’m fascinated to work out WHY this is happening. How did this all start? Was the LW’s predecessor someone who encouraged this, and they’re just substituting, or…? Is it toxic culture?

    I absolutely don’t believe that it’s anything the LW is doing. I think she’s just handy, if that makes sense.

    Another thing I wanted to mention: When you’re a young woman in an office, and a male co-worker begins telling you about his marital problems… this is usually leading in one and only one direction. Diluted by all the other trauma, though? Hard to say if that’s the end goal, or if it’s something else altogether.

    I’m stumped on this one!

  41. Jessica Fletcher*

    They’re using a young, female coworker as an emotional crutch. It’s sexist.

    Step 1, tell your boss!! They want to know. They might be able to burn capital on this in a way that doesn’t hurt you, by framing it as “I need LW to spend less time on calls with your team.”

    I do wonder what would happen if you trauma dumped right back. But then you risk one of them liking it and wanting to always help so you can commiserate.

  42. I don’t post often*

    I’m going to leave this here. Possibly it resonates, possibly it doesn’t. I’m an introvert and I have trouble making conversation with people. When I say introvert, I mean I’ve worked from home in my basement for the past 10 years, and I’m 100% fine with this. I care about people but I have trouble showing it, showing an appropriate level of sympathy. It’s not that I dont care about people-i do- I just have trouble showing it and talking about it.
    My mom, on the other hand, gets the life story of the cashier checking her out at the grocery store. People just tell her things. She has an open looking face. She is friendly, she cares about people and their problems a great deal and is wonderful at conveying that.
    With that being said, sometimes she’s in a hurry and she will complain that people talk to her too much. BUT, she gives them conversational indicators to continue the conversation. Even if it’s just a simple “oh?” Or she makes a comment indicating she wants more info or she wants to talk more. I’d be willing to bet that you are like my
    Mom and somehow are giving off a conversational indicator that says “keep talking”.
    If I were sitting next to you I could pick it out. I can pick it out because I can’t easily make conversation on my own.
    I know this might sound hugely weird. My advice would be to not take any bait, not make any conversation but what you are working on, or if you need to wait 10 minutes for the system to run and have to hang on the phone with them then “oh gee i just got an email and MUST respond, can you let me know when it’s finished?” Focus on knowing nothing but their names.
    It’s also possible the work with you because of the conversation. You may want to think about that. Which do you want more? The work done? Or not?

    1. Amorphous Eldritch Horror*

      This was such a good comment until the last paragraph, which is the exact advice I was given concerning harassment in the bad old days. I didn’t actually have to put up with it to have a job and neither does LW.

      1. Despachito*

        I know this is a tricky field because it can border on victim blaming and we definitely do not want that, but perhaps some of us are indeed sending some unconscious signals “I am willing to talk”, just as IDP’s mum does, and some of us have been socialized that we should listen or that it would be rude to interrupt inappropriate venting.

        I think it is not wrong to focus on this because we are the only person whose behaviour we can influence, and if there is something we can do differently to free ourselves of the obnoxious behaviour of others, it is worth exploring. And if we are aware of what is behind it, it can help us to realize it is definitely not our obligation to be someone’s sounding board, and still leave us some space to show a little compassion while still maintaining firm borders. (to have a parent with dementia is a HUGE trauma for the person involved, and ideally it would be nice to be able to say a few kind words to this person without letting them overload us with their problem).

    2. Former Young Lady*

      I doubt OP is giving mixed signals here. I think it’s far more likely that OP’s male colleagues are deliberately ignoring nonverbal cues to STOP dumping and focus on work.

      You know that thing where men don’t want to be socially rebuffed, so they just disregard any nonverbal communication? This is that.

      You know that thing where a woman communicates verbally and they either refuse to take her seriously, or flip out? The workplace version of that is happening when OP tries to draw a boundary.

      I’m sure you don’t mean to victim blame, but this is not a problem OP can solve by looking less approachable. (Ask me what happens to women professionals when we try that!)

      1. Despachito*

        What other remedy is there though, if someone keeps ignoring nonverbal cues (or genuinely does not understand them, which definitely can happen too, and it is helpful to realize this is also a possibility) , than use more explicit, verbal ones? And definitely NOT be approachable in the sense we don’t want to? (Ie work talk – I am always game, my-wife-is-horrible talk – I definitely want none of this).

    3. sav*

      “It’s also possible the work with you because of the conversation. You may want to think about that. Which do you want more? The work done? Or not?”

      What??? That bit is absolutely not okay. No one should be an unwilling dumping ground for other people’s trauma, and that’s before even factoring in what OP said about the things these guys are dumping on her triggering her own struggles! And more to the point, the work ISN’T getting done in a timely fashion, and when OP pushes back, it isn’t getting done at all.

      Under no circumstances should she just let it go so the work “gets done.” She should prioritize herself, not her coworkers and not her company.

  43. WendyCity*

    I want to reiterate that this is not your fault, and that you don’t deserve and didn’t ask for this! How shitty of your coworkers.

    I want to encourage you to break the social contract – your coworkers have already broken it with you by dumping on a coworker (wtf) so just mark that awkwardness as “return to sender.”

    Some suggestions:
    – “Wow.”
    – “[ignore thing just said about dead brother entirely] thanks for the answer on Turtle Tables.”
    – “what an interesting thing to say to a coworker!”
    – “I’d like to keep this focused on work, thanks.”
    – [silence]

    I know this will probably create problems/perceived slights, but at this point, trust that you know what you’re doing and can get what you need elsewhere.

    Another option: use Allison’s sometimes-suggested framing of “this is just a weird me thing!” and have a general conversation with your coworkers. “I notice this team likes to go into personal stories when chatting about work – that’s just not my style, I tend to get really distracted and upset, so thanks for understanding!”

  44. morethantired*

    I think your best bet when they start getting into really difficult personal events is to just to cut them off to say “Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to pry into your personal life! I know most people are having a difficult time very since COVID started. No need to explain. I get it.”
    This lets them know it’s too personal but gives them the benefit of the doubt that they took your comments to mean they thought they needed to explain themselves to you. It should do the trick.
    If they respond “oh, no, I don’t mind talking about it.” then just respond “Not at all! I just don’t want it to distract from what we’re working on here. So, bring it back to the snappers….”

    1. LW Turtle Analyst*

      Ooooh, I love this one. They really will stop helping as often if I go full “I can’t listen to personal stories”, but this is Alison’s “it’s a weird me thing” to a new level! Thank you, I will use this.

      1. JSP*

        One approach I’ve had success with is “Hey, that sounds really tough. If you’re not up to going over TurtleDB right now I totally understand. Do we need to push this meeting back?” This will:
        1. Be honest
        2. Not compromise your values in maintaining social norms, even when others break them
        3. Make them conscious that their dumping is not work related and not what they should be talking about
        4. Send a message that while mental health may come first and be most important, having you in their office means they’re up to doing work

        Also, you can interrupt with this line at any time, and still be a nice person!

        1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

          I like both of the suggestions in the thread. It makes it clearer that this is weird, but in a way that’s gentle enough to hopefully avoid your coworkers being jerks about it.

          I super hate that people (mostly women / femmes) have to do this terrible dance instead of being more direct. Not gonna tell you to just be direct, though, since it could cause you real problems.

  45. Student*

    I’ve had this happen to me! It started trailing off as I got older and gained seniority. I don’t know for sure what triggers it, and unfortunately I never found a way to consciously make it stop. I sympathize a lot with your reasons to not be blunt with them – I’ve been on the receiving end of men pouting when I don’t act the way they expect, and I think a lot of the other commenters who haven’t experienced that first-hand are overly dismissive of it. It can really hold you back in a job, it’s unfair, and everybody still seems to throw it back on you to fix instead of holding the pouting men up to the standards of basic adults.

    I suspect, based on the way men were treating me and the trailing-off as I got older, that it is triggered partially by appearance and partially with your perceived authority/importance/intimidation factor. I think that if you seem like a very harmless person that can’t possibly hurt them, are a woman, and look like you are subordinate & young, that makes men who are disposed towards doing this more likely to decide you’re a safe person to trauma-dump on. I’m also very short, and I think that leads a lot of men to consider me harmless very quickly.

    If you want something in your control that won’t involve telling these men to directly stop trauma-dumping on you, thus incurring their sulking, I have one suggestion. Try putting on more formal business clothes. Bring a suite-coat to work and put it on before you talk to these guys, even if you never usually wear one; suite-coats make everyone look very official, even if you wear a t-shirt under it. If you have an easy way to make yourself look a little older, try that too – that might mean a quick swipe of eye-shadow or eye-liner, it might mean adjusting your hair style a little bit (I’m suggesting small stuff, like taking out brightly-colored hair accessories, or adjusting a pony tail – not talking a perm or a new hair cut).

    You can also open by telling them you have a time constraint – you need to leave for a meeting after 10 minutes, or whatever makes sense for the task and your workplace. Then you have a free out if they get into trauma-dumping. Set a timer before you go in, and when it goes off, tell them you need to bail.

    1. LW Turtle Analyst*

      If only I worked in person! No one here turns on their cameras, so no one would see my killer cat eye liner. But, I can still see this giving ME confidence. It’s easier to say, “I’ve got an hour, then Turtle Boss is going to drag me into something else. Let’s get this done,” if I’m in a killer top. I’ll think about this one.

      1. Student*

        Honestly, if you work in a place where no one turns on their cameras, I’d encourage you to try it as an experiment on these colleagues to see if it makes them reign it in. I’m not sure it will help or hurt, but it seems like you probably don’t have much to lose by trying it out.

        At my work, we also don’t do cameras routinely, and it makes things feel much more formal when they are on. Even if they leave their cameras off, it can let you convey some non-verbal cues about the conversation, like that you wish to speak when they’re going on and on.

      2. coffee*

        In my experience, you will find it gets easier with practice. You can also schedule a meeting with yourself on the calendar, with an explicit plan to do a particular piece of work. It will probably feel like a more concrete reason to stop and be easier to stick to. After all, those long necked turtles do need to be sorted out! You can’t let the turtles down by staying on too long!

      3. HalJordan*

        OH you might not see this, but if it’s all calls without cameras, can you mute them during the trauma dumps (even just from time to time?) and then say ‘oh, I’m so sorry, I lost track of what you were saying’ when you come back into the call? it’s very unlikely they’ll repeat the whole sad story at that point.

    2. Starfleet HVAC Engineering*

      The time limit thing is always a good idea – “Hey, quick question about X before I head to my meeting in five minutes…” Problem is, you have to hold that, even if they filibuster and don’t talk about X.

  46. Jane*

    Tell them that you got in trouble for spending too much time talking about non-work related items. You’re not sure who reported you, but you’re very upset, the best thing is to keep your conversations professional going forward! You really appreciate their help, they’re being such a good colleague by supporting you in this.

  47. Not Elizabeth*

    I suspect that this is either gendered (they expect a woman to be caring and motherly, even in a professional context) or just a general room-reading problem (they generally are prone to oversharing and need to be directly told to stop). Either way, I think you should just shut it down while making sympathetic noises: “Gee, that does sound rough, I’m sorry to hear it, but right now I want to focus on this task…” Even interrupt them if need be: “I’m going to have to stop you right there [with a hand up in the “stop” signal if you’re in person or on video] — I’m sorry to hear about your dad, but right now I need some information from the Pensky file.”

    If this means that in the future they’re not forthcoming with what you need to do your job, then escalate *that* workflow problem.

    Another approach — “Let me give you my therapist’s number — she’s helped me so much with problems like these.”

  48. penny dreadful analyzer*

    It is alarming to me from a “dealing with these guys” perspective that they also screwed over your boss on a work thing due to having their feelings hurt, but I think it is probably good from a “you should talk to your boss” perspective, since they have also been impacted by how unreasonable these guys are.

  49. Another Chris*

    Lots of good advice already! In addition, I wonder if you could use some of the advice that Allison has given for keeping a meeting from getting out of control, ie setting an agenda and/or a firm time limit, purposefully scheduling other commitments directly after these times so that you aren’t trapped unwillingly. Before sitting down, you could ask to focus on the specific topic at hand with little to zero small talk. If it starts veering in that direction, remind them about your other time commitments.

    I know you worry about coming off as brusque or leaving these guys feeling slighted. That may still happen; in that case, it’s on them, not you. Going to your boss/HR I hope can fix that issue. I’m surprised/alarmed in that one instance you mentioned being frozen out for a month, that your own boss didn’t escalate the issue with their team lead/manager and get it resolved more quickly.

    BTW, none of this is your fault! Being kind an empathetic is not an invitation to get run over by the trauma truck.

  50. Anastatia Beaverhousen*

    This is a weird example of trauma dumping, and they are doing in an inappropriate place which tells me that they have problems with boundaries. When others have trouble with boundaries it is our job to enforce them. When they start it is okay to interrupt them “I am sorry to hear that, but I don’t think that I am the appropriate person to have this conversation with. Have you spoken to HR about what mental health resources they have.” If they continue then it is okay to redirect them back to the conversation at hand and tell them that you will have to stop the conversation until they are ready to talk about the work topic at hand. If someone is repeatedly violating this boundary it is appropriate to approach their boss about your concerns as they are struggling.

  51. I Fought the Law*

    And this is how toxic masculinity harms everyone. While it’s not the OP’s problem, and it’s definitely gendered, I actually feel sorry for these guys who clearly have no one else to talk to and probably due to the way they were socialized are unwilling to talk to each other.

    I like the EAP idea raised by one of the commenters above, and I would also raise it with the boss. I can be a pretty harsh person, but I think I personally would struggle with telling them directly to their faces that they need to stop talking about such emotional topics.

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Might be totally out of line, but could you redirect them to one of the other men? Like, “Oh, Seamus has a hard relationship with his dad, too, you should talk to him about this!”

      1. 1LFTW*

        If the LW decided to go this route, I’d change the wording slightly: “You know, I can’t get into details, but I think Seamus might be a good person to talk to about this. I’m really more of a Turtle Database Person. Speaking of which, about those snapping turtles…”

        That way OP doesn’t get blowback about “gossiping” or “breaking a confidence” about Seamus and his daddy issues.

  52. Therapist manager*

    Repeatedly, like a broken record, redirect them to the appropriate place for this conversation.

    * It sounds like you might really benefit from therapy to deal with this.
    * Susie at HR has some great resources. Do you have her number? It’s . . . (All one sentence)
    * This is why I keep recommending therapy. You are going through a lot. You should give it a try.
    * Wow. That’s way outside my pay grade. Have you called a therapist yet?
    * My therapist helps me a lot with stuff like this. (If you feel comfortable disclosing that)

    1. Decima Dewey*

      Your therapist could be your pet, or the frogs at the pond in the community garden. Good listeners and they don’t interrupt.

  53. Beans*

    I think you have to be direct about it. Name the problem. “Bartlett, I notice that when I come to you with work questions, you use that as an opportunity to tell me deeply personal things about yourself? What’s going on?” (He get awkward, deflects, whatever) “I understand that you’re dealing with a lot outside of work, but I cannot assist. We need to keep our conversations focused on the work at hand. Now, back to the turtles…”

    Have the redirect ready to go. Don’t actually listen when he’s dumping; rehearse your script in your head so it comes out smoothly.

    And then loop in your manager and his manager! “I asked Bartleby to show me a work process and what should have been a 15 minute meeting took 45 minutes because he insisted on telling me deeply personal information, even after I asked him to stop. This is a pattern and can not continue as it is a significant impediment to my completing my tasks in a timely manner”. And then, EVERY TIME HE DOES THIS, document it and email both your managers. If he stops helping you because you enacted a very reasonable boundary, DOCUMENT HIS REFUSAL AND EMAIL HIS MANAGERS. Every time.

    He can refuse to help you unless you’re his therapist, BUT you don’t have to find a way to work around him. If he’s not helping do your job, that’s a him and his manager and a your manager problem. It’s not a you problem.

    And also start job hunting because you’ve hit your 2 years and this company sounds nutty.

  54. Plebeian Aristocracy*

    I wonder if the best solution might be to head this off at the start. It might feel weird, but setting the idea that, “we are going to first talk about turtles, then tortoises, then I need to head off for the snapper project.” It might help to frame the interactions better.

  55. Caramel and Cheddar*

    I think the deeply personal nature of the comments is overshadowing the fact that essentially they’re wasting your time like any other chit chat that you may not wish to be a part of. There are lots of scripts on this site for detangling yourself from a chatty coworker, and most of them will probably work here if you throw in an extra bit of delicacy to what you say (if it’s important for you to detangle yourself gently).

  56. Just Like Heaven*

    Loop in your boss first. Also, I would proactively send out an email to these people saying, “Hi everyone, I love talking with you all, but my boss and I have realized that personal conversations are affecting my work. So, unfortunately, I will not be able to engage in personal conversations at work now. I will let you know if this changes! Thank you in advance for understanding.” Make sure your boss backs you up on this.

    But yes, search for a new job or place where you don’t have to do this. If these guys weren’t so reactive, I would point out the sexism in this… but I wouldn’t do so here.

  57. wickedtongue*

    Oh, I think the stereotype about men not showing their emotions is very much still in play here, except it should be amended to: Men won’t show their emotions to each other, but they’ll use any woman as a free therapist. I have seen and experienced this, and many of my female friends have too!

  58. nnn*

    This isn’t a fully-formed idea, this is just roughly pointing in the general direction of an idea to add to the brainstorming:

    Men often don’t want to be thought of as emotional, so if you use the word “emotional” to refer to what they’re doing, it can sometimes be dissuasive.

    “Fergus seems to be having a hard time – he got weirdly emotional about his father in the turtle conversion table meeting”

    Parts I haven’t figured out:
    – How to do this directly in conversation with Fergus
    – How to do it in a way that wouldn’t reflect poorly on you (e.g. by making you come across as catty/judgemental/gossipy)

    1. Generic Name*

      You may be on so something here. They are making LW feel uncomfortable. It’s time to turn the tables. “Wow, you sound really emotional about that.” When they stammer that they’re not getting emotional, you can flatly say “ok. Now onto the terrapin project”.

      1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        Yes, this could work. Like “oh, I’m sorry to see you’re so emotional / upset / sad / etc.”

  59. Jacquelyn Olson*

    I think you probably need to start thinking of this as a behavior you want to stop completely, but not as a hostage situation where you can do nothing because if you are evenly slightly assertive these coworkers will not help you with your work. Being newish to job/industry/work in general you seem to be operating under the “above all, make sure I seem nice all the time” mindset. Which is great, being nice can be a positive thing. However, you really want *professional*, not nice. It is perfectly ok to interrupt these emotions volcanoes with “That sounds really difficult and I am sorry, however, I do need to keep my mind at work. You should connect with (fill in company EAP or they can ask HR for resources or whatever) about this. Anyway, what about (fill in the blank with a work related conversation).” If they try to keep pushing, you can be more direct with an “again, I’m sorry, but I really cannot have these types of conversation at work where I am trying to focus.” You say that when you have pushed back softly in the past they are slow to help. Well, if that is the end result, you can just address that as a work issue at that time. Like you would any performance issue. If it means calling the behavior at the time (“I really need this from you by X, are you able to do that”) or even tipping off a supervisor under the guise of asking for guidance (“Mr. Emotions Volcano seems to be having difficult getting Y completed by the deadline, is there someone else I can use if he is unavailable?”) I am writing this as someone who for far, far too long was the de facto therapist for two particular train wrecks in my after college job. And one of those was my direct manager. This approach did work, but yes, there was a short interim period of awkwardness while they were processing the change in their interactions with me. It will never be rude to advocate for youself. You will not be a “less nice” person because you cannot help coworkers with their very personal problems. Good luck!

    1. LW Turtle Analyst*

      Screenshotting this. The “I need to keep my mind on work” in the middle of “My sister was always the favorite stepchild” should cut it short and not look too bad. Then again, looking bad is not the point here. I’m an analyst for reptiles, dammit, I don’t have to do this.

  60. LW Turtle Analyst*

    Ooooh, I love this one. They really will stop helping as often if I go full “I can’t listen to personal stories”, but this is Alison’s “it’s a weird me thing” to a new level! Thank you, I will use this.

  61. Gracely*

    It might be worth avoiding any questions about how people are doing–especially when you’re in a meeting. Instead of asking others if you need to fill silence while waiting for something to boot up or for someone to get there, talk about a topic that’s still work focused if at all possible.

    It’s not your fault that they’re trauma-dumping, but it’s still worth not creating openings for it.

    And like others have said, if you need the admin access they provide to be able to do your job, you should try to make the case for getting at least limited admin access, because you should have the tools you need to do your job. I mean, what if they all came down sick or something? And also, yes, talk to your boss about this!

  62. Just Want A Nap*

    I used a version of “Yeah that sucks, I’m unable to help you with that traumatic event because I’m not trained in this. Have you used the EAP/spoken to a therapist?”
    They did not like it and ended up stopping venting to me.

  63. LuckySophia*

    I’m coming at this from a little bit of a different perspective than other commenters.
    Mainly because, in the past month or two, literally everyone I know, except one person is, going through trauma/drama with multiple health or family problems — or both. Friends/relatives who are normally optimistic or “even keel” are feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of events and unprecedented level of “stuff” they are dealing with, on top of 3 years of pandemic-related stresses. (And I’m getting overloaded just from hearing about all that stuff. ) So maybe these guys are just going through what large portions of the population seem to be experiencing right now.

    Or maybe it’s a gendered thing. Maybe these guys are all doing the manly-man/stiff upper lip thing among themselves, but because you’re younger/female they perceive you as a “safe” audience for their venting/trauma dumping.

    Conversely — if they all “trauma dump” to each other all day, maybe extending that kind of interaction to you is their way of “accepting” you as one of guys/one of their in-group.

    None of the three above “explanations” make their behavior right, or appropriate, or any less harmful to you. But if you could figure out which “explanation” is likely motivating their behavior, maybe it makes it easier for you to contextualize it and find a different way forward.

    In any case, when they start with the verbal barrage, can you say something like,” I’m sorry you’re going through that but I’m gonna have to ask you to to take a time-out on sharing those problems with me. My friends/family have been sharing nothing but their problems with me lately, and frankly it’s just overwhelming. Work is the only place I can escape from hearing about everybody’s problems, and for my own sanity I need to keep it that way. I love being able to work on this database stuff with you, so can we focus back on that Snapper issue now?”

    1. Ari*

      I love your reply which comes from a place of empathy. I have so many friends and family going through trials as well. Some days it makes my depression and anxiety harder to navigate, but I have a hard time telling people “no, I can’t listen to you right now”. I’m working on it.

    2. LW Turtle Analyst*

      This is definitely part of why I was responsive to this in the beginning. I’m the type who baristas tell me all about their failed writing career or Uber drivers mention their dad’s betrayal. But I just cannot handle this at work, too! Over my caramel latte, sure, but not over my database. Thank you for coming at this with such empathy, and a firm response.

      1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        I feel this. I’m also a person whose superpower is that random people will tell me their life stories. It can be A LOT.
        I’m sure that the colleagues are genuinely suffering. And the patriarchy has definitely screwed them over by making it so that men are not taught tools for handling their emotions. But none of that is your responsibility to fix.

  64. H3llifIknow*

    I’d respond with “Yeah. You should talk to someone about it. NOT ME, of course, as I have no training but…someone…else.” Or a non-committal “huh” followed by “Ok, so about the code in line 333…” If they don’t get the desired sympathy and reactions they’re wanting/expecting, I think eventually it’ll fizzle out.

  65. ABCYaBYE*

    OP, I’m sorry this is happening to you. It is one thing to share personal info and stories with co-workers with whom you’re friendly, it is another thing to become the trauma dumping grounds for everyone.

    I think you definitely need to loop in your boss. And while you probably should mention the overly personal, lengthy sharing sessions, I wouldn’t make the content the entire focus. Make it about your inability to get through meetings quickly and get your work done. Then there’s less chance of it being seeing as you bringing up a problem you have with these guys personally (note: you have a right to have a MAJOR problem with these guys and what they’re doing… I just don’t want it to derail you in getting a solution if it can be viewed differently by someone who has their head in the sand). Inquire about getting the access you need so you can speed up processes. You shouldn’t need to be meeting with these guys just to get to solutions you could get to on your own with access. It sounds like these guys are taking up a lot of your time in these meetings, as well. So focusing on this problem as an efficiency problem may get you swifter results. And you’ll be well within your rights to note to your boss that you are uncomfortable with these trauma dumps and you’re going to be directly, but kindly, asking the guys to focus on work stuff instead. That’ll ensure the boss knows what you’re doing to stop it, and can back you up if the guys get cranky.

  66. TypityTypeType*

    LW, you are just a delightful writer — clear, evocative, and funny.

    I have no advice to offer, sadly, but I very much enjoyed reading your letter, and can at least sympathize with your frustration!

  67. Ari*

    As a new-ish manager a few years ago, I had a couple of direct reports who would do this randomly. I heard stuff I can’t ever unhear. In hindsight, I should have shut it down, but I still don’t know how to do that without coming across as insensitive. I did care about these people (women in my case) and their lives…I just didn’t need the details. I’m hoping to glean some advice in case I ever decide to go back into management down the road.

  68. OP*

    Are we going for classy or uncomfortable? I vote uncomfortable.

    “My period has been wicked this month. Blood everywhere, cramps, constipation. Went to 4 stores last night looking for the ultra jumbo size!”

    1. I forgot to change my name!*

      oh lord…I’m no OP. Auto-populated from a previos post when I WAS the OP. Sorry friends!

    2. Tracy Flick*

      Better yet, find inspiration from the ancients:

      “My uterus keeps wandering all over the place…it’s probably an imbalance of black bile….”

    3. goddessoftransitory*

      “Gonna have to buy a new living room chair, we are talking elevator doors from The Shining here…where are you going?”

    4. Middle generation millennial*

      I’d just go with “I don’t know what to tell you man, that sucks.” Repeat as often as necessary.

  69. Lisa*

    I think that one other thing you can try is seeing if your company has an employee assistance program and having their number on hand so that when someone is ignoring your obvious discomfort and desire to move on from the conversation, you can say “all of this sounds terrible. I am not experienced or comfortable with this sort of thing, but I really think you should call our company’s employee assistance program, this sounds like the very thing that they are there to help with”. Beyond that, normally just acting busy, or having another meeting to get to, or offering condolences and then switching back to work mode, those things all normally work… for instance I have this one co-worker who is hugely chatty and my job is very busy and I just don’t have an hour to listen to her talk about her dogs. So when I have a meeting with her I make sure that she knows my time is limited “I actually have an 11am and we have a full agenda, so let’s get right to it”. You could also blame things on your boss… “My schedule has been packed lately so Candace only wants me spending 10 minutes on the Turtle Updates so we need to keep it short today”

  70. Kermit's Bookkeepers*

    “I’m going to have to stop you there — I’m trying to have better boundaries around personal stuff at work, so I’d appreciate if we can keep the conversation based in the workplace. But I think the EAP has resources if you need someone to talk to about this.” And then immediately ask them a work question. Keep your tone friendly, but immediately redirect to work when you’re getting off topic. Once you’ve given them the explicit context of “I’m working on better boundaries,” reasonable people will recognize that that’s what you’re doing. I promise no one will hate you for this! You can be kind and protect your peace at the same time!

    I’m also a big fan of phrases like, “Y’know, I don’t think I’m the person you should be sharing that thought with,” or “This isn’t really my area.”

    1. Elaine B.*

      This worked for me. My situation was a little different, in that the man trauma dumping and getting way too emotionally personal for my taste is someone I work with closely and consider a “work-friend.” I still don’t want to have to listen to his personal drama or deal with his probing questions about my own personal life. I think he thought we were friends in “real-life” but I just consider him as someone I am friendly with at work. Once I told him that I do not want to discuss personal issues while in the office, he backed off significantly!

      Occasionally, he pings me on Teams to whine or complain, and I just don’t respond to his messages. Someone new started working in our office and I think he is now using her as his emotional support woman lol.

    2. Kermit's Bookkeepers*

      PS: You mentioned in your letter that these coworkers have already seemed hurt or huffy at your attempts to redirect the conversation before. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a right to a boundary! It’s possible they will react that way if you do ANYTHING that isn’t patting them on the back and making them a sandwich (metaphorically). At that point, that is their problem and not yours. Be kind but firm, and divest yourself of any interest in their emotional reaction to that.

  71. WantonSeedStitch*

    I think my own response on a first “offense” would likely be something like “Gee, that’s rough. I know when I’ve had a hard time or stuff I needed to process, our EAP has had some really good resources. You should give them a call! Now, about those snappers…” But if it happened again, I’d probably say something like “It sounds like you’re going through a lot right now. I sympathize, but to be honest, it’s kind of hard for me to switch between personal talk and work talk like this. Can we focus on [task] right now? And I meant it when I said the EAP is helpful–I’m sure they can do a lot more to help than I could. If you don’t have the link/number/info, I’m happy to forward it to you!”

  72. Narise*

    I find when people over share at weird moments a pause with raised eyebrows and a ‘where is this going’ look helps. Don’t respond verbally just give them a surprised look. I worked with a few guys that would randomly interject things into conversations and would take us off topic. Instead of responding I would just stop and stare and raise my eyebrows at them with a not sure how this is related look. After a moment or two they’d realize they were off topic or at least they are only met with silence vs sympathy.
    The other option is to bring up unrelated awkward stuff as well so it’s weird for them too.
    ‘My dad has dementia.’ ‘That’s tough. I have to have my annual pelvic and I’m the same age as my aunt when they discovered ovarian cancer.’
    ‘My dad didn’t love me as much as my brother.’ ‘There can be only one favorite and it seems like everyone has one. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip had favorites. Crazy right.’

  73. Emily*

    If you tell them bluntly to stop and then they are slower to do their jobs in the future in ways that impact you, that’s not your problem to solve. It will be your job to document that this is happening, but it is your manager’s job to handle. And if they don’t handle it and there are aspects of your job that you can’t do, this is not on you. This is another ‘you can’t care about doing your job more than your organization cares about you doing your job’ — you are bearing the costs of your organization’s dysfunctionality, and you don’t need to do that. On the plus side, if they’re not going to fire these guys for not doing their jobs, they probably won’t fire you, either — so you can have a leisurely job search away from this.

  74. Worldwalker*

    I have no valid suggestions about the co-worker problem, but I wanted to say I *love* the OP’s job example. And it probably says a lot about me that something in the back of my brain immediately started laying out the structure for a turtle database.

    Weirdest turtle incident: Finding a huge, very dark female slider (I thought only the males got melanistic with age) in my driveway, a couple of miles from the nearest body of water.

    1. LW Turtle Analyst*

      99% of my brain is probably turtles and reptiles, so I feel you. I even have the local snake hotline saved in my phone, just in case I see a lil friend and don’t know if I can take a picture 2 feet away or 20 miles away.

    2. Ann Ominous*

      My favorite thing to learn about turtles was that their shells have nerve endings and they can feel you petting them.

  75. LW Turtle Analyst*

    99% of my brain is probably turtles and reptiles, so I feel you. I even have the local snake hotline saved in my phone, just in case I see a lil friend and don’t know if I can take a picture 2 feet away or 20 miles away.

  76. cubby*

    ymmv with this one, but at my new job an older coworker constantly told ‘amusing’ family anecdotes that were really about her mother being terribly cruel and abusive. one day i said i’m sorry, i really have to ask you to stop telling me about the way your mother treated you. these stories stick with me and replay in my head and make me very sad.

    and this lady immediately was like okay i understand — and then launched into a ‘funny’ story about her older sister being terribly cruel and abusive! and i cut her off and said this is the same, to me. and if you keep telling me stuff like this i’m going to cry.

    and that startled her enough that she has never told me another story like that. and i wasn’t about to actually cry! but i had to basically play up my sensitivity in order to make this work so i’m not sure that’s a good tactic here.

  77. Sabina*

    I’m wondering what would happen if you just responded with dead silence? If they repeat themselves just say something like “sorry, I was looking at the turtle production projections for next quarter. Did you say something about the current data ? Oh, your brother? Yeah, I wouldn’t know about that…” and just trail off into silence again. And stop asking how they are, how things are going or making any non-task related comments about yourself.

    1. SJPxo*

      I actually kinda like this, yes OP will be likely labelled as cold hearted but these men cannot seem to get social cues that OP just wants to do work stuff

    2. H3llifIknow*

      I like this approach and if it can be said with that sort of “vague-absent-minded professor” sort of tone like you were completely absorbed, I don’t think any feelings will get hurt. You’ll just be the “in the weeds” person that isn’t good with small talk.

  78. Hypocaffeinemia*

    “I need to keep this conversation work-focused.” And then if they continue, “I have a lot of tasks to attend to today, and need to keep this conversation brief and focused on the issue at hand.”
    If they continue after that, or if they retaliate or obstruct your ability to get your job done, then escalate the issue to your manager.

  79. SJPxo*

    You could try “Oh I am sorry to hear that, that sounds rough, but apologies but going to have to steer us back to my original query, I am in a bit of a time crunch, thanks so much for your help”

  80. old curmudgeon*

    I have acquaintances who use a very noncommittal vocal sound that is not a word in response to conversations they do not wish to participate in, and it appears to be so effective that I have tried to start using it myself.

    When the other person pauses in their flow of verbal diarrhea for the other person to make a sympathetic comment, they just say something like “mmmm” in a monotone pitch (i.e. not going up in pitch as if asking for more information or going down in pitch as if commenting on what was said). It acknowledges that the person said something, but doesn’t give any informational or emotional content to that acknowledgement.

    I can attest that a few monotone “mmmm” responses will usually shut down even an overenthusiastic oversharer from continuing to babble. The reason I know this is that in some situations, I can be overly chatty, and those monotone “mmmm” comments shut me up in a big hurry.

    Beyond that, if you’ve been there for two years at this point, that’s certainly long enough a tenure not to be a red flag on your resume, so if you just can’t shut these idiots up no matter what you do, get that resume into circulation and move on to a healthier workplace.

  81. Moesha*

    Start crying. Tell them this talk is triggering your trauma. Fake a meltdown. It will never happen again!

  82. PNWHR*

    A lot of my coworkers do this too (I’m HR). In a casual sense, not a “I need services which is why I am coming to you” sense. I have gotten so much better about not letting it affect me, and just being super sympathetic and engaging only so far before I say that I have to get back to work. I’m glad they feel like I’m a safe place…there are lot of people that have it rough out there.

    However, I occasionally will have 1-2 people that will come see me literally every day to trauma dump on me. And when I am personally maxed out on stress, it is too much. So this is what I will say:
    Me: I’m so sorry, it sounds like things are not going well. I personally have been really overwhelmed and when you tell me about all of the things going on in your family and are so upset, it adds to my stress and it’s a lot for me to handle. I can totally get you some referrals for someone to talk to but I just can’t take on anyone else’s stress right now because it really affects my ability to do my job and also leave it at work when I go home at night.”

    It works really, really well. Best of luck!

  83. nora*

    So, the first class you take in social work school is communication. And basically the first thing you learn is the person least invested in a conversation is the person with the most power.

    How does this apply to you, OP? Dis. In. Vest. If Tim says “oh god it’s so horrible my hamster died and my fish is depressed and blah blah blah,” you respond with “Hm” or, preferably, nothing at all. You’ll have the upper hand in the conversation AND you won’t reward bad behavior with attention. In theory, eventually, the behavior will stop. It might get dramatically worse first, but hold the line.

    I would avoid saying anything with even a hint of emotion or solution in it. No “wow that sucks” or “I’m sorry” or even “have you talked to Tina in HR?” That’s a reward. That’s what they want, not what you want.

    Good luck.

  84. Avid Reader*

    These are clueless men, after discussing with your boss, please tell them that you are only available for tech support and to please contact your EAP program for anything else. Be very direct or they will continue. Feel free to advise them that your time is being impacted on your work projects. Keep that in mind and it will make delivering this message repeatedly, easier.

  85. guedita*

    “Huh, have you discussed this with your therapist? (redirect to work)”

    “Sounds like a good topic for therapy!”

    Also seconding the “mmmm” and dead silence approach

  86. Catwhisperer*

    Have you tried “That sounds rough, have you tried talking to a therapist about it?” in a very kind tone of voice? And, when they inevitably say no, you can respond with, “You should really look into it, they’re very helpful for this sort of thing.”

    In my experience, men are very reluctant to continue personal conversations after you’ve suggested therapy.

  87. WellRed*

    We had an opposite issue where one coworker was under the impression that our weekly team mtg, already a fairly useless endeavor, was an invitation to blather about personal family issues, often over sharing their family’s private info. Mgt knew it was an issue but did nothing. I finally spoke up ( remote mtg) when he started in about some gross health thing and asked if we could please stop with the gory details. The shock waves were palpable (you’d think I stomped a puppy) and my boss privately messaged me a slap on the wrist but it did the trick. You are not required to be a repository of other’s trauma.

  88. Starfleet HVAC Engineering*

    Start charging for therapy, minimum 30 minute blocks.

    But seriously, I will never understand people who think work is there to fulfill social needs. I honestly don’t care about your personal life – we’re around each other 10 hours a day, that is more than enough. As far as you’re concerned, I cease to exist outside of this office.

  89. 2ManyBugs*

    You’re not wrong that the direct approach is likely to cause them to freeze you out. This is a case where the professional approach *should* work, but probably won’t because it doesn’t sound like they’re very professional.

    In your shoes, I would take a two-pronged, faintly manipulative approach to A) make these conversations unrewarding and B) do more to control the conversation.

    A) Don’t respond with things like “Wow, that sounds hard”. That’s a sympathetic, nice thing that encourages them. Try “grey-rocking” instead – “Uh huh”, clearly being distracted, “Sorry, I had to answer an email, is it loaded yet?”, “Hold that thought, ?”, etc. Just don’t give them the sympathetic reaction they’re looking for.

    B) Controlling the conversation – think about what small talk topics *aren’t* loaded and interject them *immediately* during the initial chitchat. Things that have worked for me: Events I’m going to in the near future (concerts, trivia nights, etc), movies and music, pets, other employees. Not mean stuff, more like “Did you see Fergus’ new puppy photos?? I love dogs.” or “Do you know what they’re serving at Office Celebration? I liked the bbq last year.” The trick is to ask a question that comes tied to a positive statement – it sets the tone for this conversation to be Upbeat and Shallow. And if they come back with “My dog died when I was a kid,” look quizzical and uncertain and say something like “Man, that’s kind of a downer, anyway Fergus’s kids look thrilled, I’m so happy for them.”

    Alternatively, make a list of small, work-related questions that you can interject into those pauses and throw it in before small talk devolves into therapy. “Yeah, work’s been crazy, I’ve been meaning to ask, how often *do* you guys update that database? And how long does it take to reset?” and things along those nature.

    I understand exactly what you’re going through, I’m female and in the tech industry, and this is a real, constant problem. If it gets really bad, you may have to escalate it and take the coworker relationship hit anyway, but I get why you want to avoid that entirely.

  90. Big Fae Energy*

    There’s a LOT of good suggestions already (especially suggesting EAP and pulling a Zuko-seque “that’s rough, buddy”), but for another chaos option, I would like to suggest zoning out until they’re done dumping, and then say with a bit of surprise, “oh, geez, I’m sorry, what were you saying? I entirely missed it because I was thinking about (important work thing).” If they are flabbergasted, redirect to the work thing. If they repeat themselves, zone out again, rinse and repeat. Most people HATE repeating themselves, and at minimum they’ll learn that you’re so work-focused that they have to keep personal stuff short.

  91. JSPA*

    Monologue right over each of them, when they start in. (And don’t share that you’re already in therapy, but do share that they’re putting you there.)

    “I don’t know why, but everyone on your team has been sharing such heavy stuff with me. It seems ridiculous that I’m at the brink of going into therapy to deal with other people’s problems. It doesn’t seem fair! Can you, I dunno, be supportive to each other, even though you’re all guys? Or take it direct to therapy, so I don’t have to be shattered by your problems? I’m clearly not unsympathetic, or I wouldn’t be this affected, but this isn’t the job I signed up for!”

    Thing is, this is 100% female emotional labor. There’s no earthly reason they can’t talk to each other. (I mean… maybe they do; maybe this is consuming them so entirely that they don’t turn it off. But that’s even more reason for them to seek real, qualified help, if so.)

  92. idwtpaun*

    The real problem seems to be that this team has the power to freeze people out of the job they’re supposed to do and faces no consequence for it (re: what happened to your boss). That’s concerning and I wonder if your boss has the standing to elevate up the chain of command.

    Other than that, I don’t know that you can do anything but keep saying, “I keep my work life separate from my private life and ask that you please not talk about personal matters at work. Thank you for understanding.” And hope that you’re riding the firm-but-polite line well enough for them not to feel slighted.

  93. TootsNYC*

    I wonder if greeting every one of those monologues (once they’ve finally ended) with something like, “That sounds very stressful. have you seen a therapist? Maybe you should see someone. I know the company has an Employee Assistance Program, you can call and have them find you someone to talk to. I’m sure it would relieve the stress to have somewhere you can talk about it with someone who is not a colleague. You should look into it.”

    Either a short, terse answer, or if you think that will seem too hostile, maybe a similar monologue, but full of “you should get therapy.”

    If they get that EVERY time, then maybe they will find the exchange less satisfying, and they’ll dial back.

    I think you could also interrupt, now that you recognize this, and say, “I’m sorry not to be a sounding board for you, but I’m really not qualified, and I think a therapist might be a better place to explore this.”

  94. PABJ*

    You need to tell your org that they need to rethink how the admin access to whatever that department is the only one with access to is distributed. Since HR is useless, find a way to work around the creaky stair without stepping on it.

  95. a woman all men tell their feelings to*

    The problem here is that men really do not have friends. They are most comfortable talking about their feelings with somewhat-familiar women because they have been socialized to not discuss emotions with other men! So I wonder if suggesting some socializing opportunties for the team (read: the men) to get comfortable with each other/start opening up *to each other* might be an option. its more of a long-term strategy but it could work and improve a LOT of factors.

    1. H3llifIknow*

      “The problem here is that men really do not have friends.”

      Ummm that’s a really weirdly gross generalization. I would say my husband and his friends and my sons and their friends have pretty deep, personal, connected conversations. I know my son has had talks with his friends about their suicidal thoughts following a break up, etc… Maybe some men don’t “connect” that well, but saying “men don’t have friends” just isn’t accurate. I also know PLENTY of women who are not sharers, who lack empathy, who DO.NOT.CARE, as well.

      1. SoloKid*

        There’s been studies showing American adult men self-reporting fewer to no meaningful connections with other men they would call “close friends” vs previous decades.

        “men do not have friends” is incorrect, but the numbers of who they consider close friends is definitely declining.

        1. H3llifIknow*

          I’d be interesting in the context of those “studies”. For example are they broken down by age? I think the males of my sons’ ages (26/36) have very close friendships vs. say my Dad or my hubby’s age males. But, I still think it’s a gross overgeneralization, regardless.

    2. Insert Clever Name Here*

      LW isn’t on their team though, and it would be an odd thing to suggest another team to do.

  96. Van Wilder*

    I can relate. I see my aunt often and I’m often lulled into a nice story that suddenly ends with someone being murdered, diagnosed with cancer, molested, or decapitated on a ferry (all real examples.) I call them “Aunt Trudy bombs.” I should see them coming by now but I never do. I know she doesn’t realize how sensitive I am to these stories and how they mess with my head.

    For you OP, I would try laying it out. Something along the lines of “Sorry to interrupt you. I have to tell you that for the sake of my mental health, I can’t hear the rest of this story. These things tend to sit with me all day and I need to be better about protecting my psyche.” Or something along those lines. Like Alison’s classic advice of making it a weird thing about you instead of them (even though that’s not true.)

    Sorry – sounds very annoying.

  97. still anon for this*

    Many folks are telling you to go for direct, or complain about the sexism, or whatever. And they’re not wrong. This might work. Here’s another take, coming from a woman who was on the receiving end of similar types of stuff for a while. My objectives: maintain bridges, increase my perceived authority at work, get my shit done. Not my objectives: be right, undermine myself, make a point, uphold righteousness, fight every battle.

    * Cut it off at the pass with humor before it starts: come prepared with another topic. Dude logging in, “this’ll just take a minut-” “Hey did you see that new sci fi series on Hulu? Have you read the Three Body Problem? or Murderbot?” pick a topic like sci fi, video games, etc.

    * Cut it off at the pass when it starts: “You know my brother passed away…” “Hey, I’m really sorry to hear that. I’ve been experiencing some family deaths too recently, it’s really depressing. Actually, let’s talk about something lighter, don’t really want to bring down the day; have you seen that new sci fi series…”

    * Redirect the conversation immediately keepign it personal-ish but to your benefit: as you’re sitting down, “You know we’ve chatted a lot but I’ve never asked you about your turtle painting experience. How do you know turtle shells need painting?” You’re tapping into the same desire to share but redirecting from trauma to something you can learn from. Or “you know we’ve chatted a lot but I wanted to know a bit more of the history of this group/the company” — get the political and social structure of the group, that’s useful.

    These people have an energy, a desire; they don’t have ill intent. Take control immediately and think about how you can match what they want to what you might benefit from. Do you need to learn more about the company? More about their jobs? more about what other folks in the company do? Redirect to professional topics or topics that allow you build non-trauma bridges. Select topics that will help them slot you into “professional colleague” or “nerd girl”. They’re going to have a schema for you anyway, so pick a different stereotype to leverage.

    Laura Huang has a book about this kind of exercise, Edge: how to transform adversity into advantage, something like that. People just do not have the mental bandwidth to conceptualize of most other folks they encounter as full persons. People in general use a prebuilt description and you’ve been classed as “good listener”. You need to work to hop to a different schema, and humor and distraction are great tools to do this without needing to directly address it. I know I sound like a total accommodationist and sell out here, but in my experience confronting folks directly about concrete actions they take that are based in sexism and racism is rarely effective. Almost everyone justifies their actions by making up reasons in retrospect that they’re right to do what they did, and many then actually identify more closely with sexist or racist ideas, because they’ve been accused of sexism/racism and they are good people who did things for good reasons and got called bad names so…. ugh I’m getting exhausted typing it out. Redirecting people to better behaviors without having them look into their own prejudices has been more effective for me.

    1. Glomarization, Esq.*

      My objectives: maintain bridges, increase my perceived authority at work, get my shit done. Not my objectives: be right, undermine myself, make a point, uphold righteousness, fight every battle.

      This is excellent framing, and I like the advice on how to fit the situation into this frame.

      In particular, I’m seeing a lot of commenters advise to come back to the co-workers with their own Gish gallop of complaints. I don’t agree, though, that the LW should respond to her co-workers like that. It seems much more professional (and friendly, however shocking that might be to some of the misanthropic crowd here) to try some tactic that doesn’t make the LW just as much of a drag as the co-workers.

    2. Soda Pop*

      I really like your advice to come prepared with other small talk topics and launch into them at any pause that would normally be filled with the trauma dump. Hopefully overtime they reframe you from “person who I tell about my daddy issues” to “person who always gives great new restaurant recommendations” or whatever.

    3. Minimal Pear*

      Knowing how people are “sorting” you is so useful–I lean into the MPDG thing on purpose because it makes my neurodivergence more “acceptable”/”explainable”.

  98. Starfox*

    Whenever you go to see them, have an extremely long, detailed, & boring story to tell when they ask how your week has been. Every nuance of the scarf you’ve been knitting, your mom’s friend’s dog doing something cute but very bland, whatever. The key is that you never ask the question back & when they try to talk over you, just keep going. It feels rude but JUST KEEP TALKING.

  99. She of Many Hats*

    I don’t if it would work but saying as soon as there’s a gasp for breath “I’m sorry to hear this but I am not the person who can help with this. As a distraction, tell me how to…..”

  100. Glorified Superuser*

    Talk to your supervisor and use it as a case for your org to give you admin privileges. That would reduce your interactions with these team members.
    My default for anytime someone won’t stop talking is to seem super busy/distracted. Short responses, physically turn away from them, claiming “important deadline” that requires your full attention at that moment.

  101. Beancounter Eric*

    LW;

    Notify your supervisor of the situation, and next time one of them begins spilling their woe, consider responding along the lines of “Not my circus, not my monkeys”, and if they continue, cut them off as necessary.

  102. Seashell*

    The described comments seem like they would take maybe 5 minutes, and nothing described there seems like it’s that far in the TMI category to me (and I’m someone who is fine with keeping small talk to a bare minimum). I would say to just stand there and nod sympathetically while tuning them out as much as possible. Excuse yourself to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water if you must. If what’s described is too stressful for you, then maybe a career with less contact with other people or increased therapy/psychiatric treatment would help.

    1. Kel*

      ….talking about dead brothers and dads with dementia who don’t remember you anymore isn’t tmi to a coworker who called you about database access???? these coworkers have terrible boundaries.

      1. Seashell*

        I don’t see either of those things being something you need to keep secret. It’s likely just chit-chat for people later in life. It’s not like they told her about their sex lives or prostate problems.

        If she’s traumatized by hearing about a dead dog, that’s a her problem. I’m old enough to know that people and pets get sick and die, and it wouldn’t affect my day to any great degree to hear about it from a colleague. If it was really dragging on too long, I would bail with an excuse of the bathroom or needing to work.

        1. Hlao-roo*

          There’s a chit-chatty way to share about some of the tougher things in life, for sure, but there’s also an “emotional vomiting” way to share those things.

          In the LW’s example conversations, a coworker says “Yeah, my dad is in a home. Dementia, you know, so he doesn’t recognize me. My brother is taking care of things down there, but it’s hard not seeing him.” And if he says that with an “eh, life happens” undertone and then pivots to “how was your weekend?” or “now about the work question,” I think that’s fine.

          But in the LW’s example, he goes from “my dad’s in a home” to “My brother was his favorite anyways. Did you know, it was my college graduation, and my dad skipped it because of my brother’s glee club recital? … How could you do that to your son?!” which definitely has undertones of “woe is me!” and that is not OK for work.

          It’s the difference between telling friends “FYI, my parents got divorced” (a life update that’s acceptable to share in most situations) and sitting in your therapists office saying “it all started when my parents got divorced…” and continuing on about the emotional impact on your life for the next 30 minutes (acceptable in a therapists office and NOT at work). Mentioning divorce (or a parent with dementia or a dead sibling or a dead pet) is not a problem, expecting your coworkers to listen to you monologue about divorce (dementia, death, etc.) is the problem.

    2. Starfox*

      Men dump their emotions all over women way too much & that kind of emotional labor takes a toll regardless of the length of time that each individual conversation takes. LW isn’t a therapist but they’re insisting that she be one for them & that is not OK, full stop. She’s not being too sensitive, she doesn’t need to change jobs to stop dealing with people, she’s not being dramatic for not wanting to be an emotional dumping ground for a bunch of dudes at work. Those are the kinds of attitudes that have made women’s lives more difficult for eons. They all need to figure out how to deal with their own stuff or get an actual trained professional to help them with it.

    3. Jeebs*

      You seem to have simply skipped over large parts of the letter. Or are you positing that OP is lieing that these conversations are taking much, much longer than 5 minutes?

  103. Jessica*

    Regarding the dilemma of “continue to absorb this distressing waste of time” vs. “have them freeze you out on work stuff,” I recommend the latter. The former (the current problem) is more slippery and more likely to be seen by third parties as a problem that doesn’t exist, isn’t serious, or is somehow your fault. By choosing the second option, you turn it into a concrete, documentable work problem: I contacted X with this request on Y date and he hasn’t replied; if he doesn’t furnish the answer by DATE, I’ll be unable to meet the deadline for Z project. Workity work work. Then you can draw on the usual array of tactics like cc’ing and documenting and escalating, and it’ll all be very worky. Third parties can see it as a Work Problem that the guys are causing by not doing their job, rather than as Weird Emo Drama that maybe you caused by existing and being female in the workplace at people.

  104. Knope Knope Knope*

    I see a few options: 1.) come with a list of safe topics… what you’re watching on Netflix, the world series etc. and start a convo before they can when a pause presents itself 2.) Make yourself unsatisfying to unload on. You say you stay quiet, maybe disagree with them or say something they may not like to hear like essential oils as a cure for dementia 3.) Just do the work without the direct access advantage 4.) decide this is the price you pay for the advantage and tune out.

  105. A Pound of Obscure*

    Find a new job. I think your coworkers’ Shakespearean dramas might be a problem with them (or maybe them+you), but if it’s true they purposely slow down work product based on ruffled feathers and perceived slights, that’s a management problem that you can’t fix.

  106. animaniactoo*

    All I’ve got is “That sounds like something you might want to talk to a therapist about.” Ad Nauseum.

    That and “Hey, I can tell this is a big deal for you, but I have a deadline I need to meet and I need to get back to work”.

  107. pamela voorhees*

    The best advice I can give to shut this down without saying a word is to have no poker face. When they start telling you a wild thing, look deeply alarmed, lean back, pull your shoulders back and up, pull anything you’re holding (papers etc.) closer back to you, stare at them with deep confusion, worry, and alarm… and then hit them with a “oh my god, Dave. Do you have a therapist to talk to about that? You should talk to our EAP.” Even if they’ve moved on from telling some horrifying story to the work, stick with it for a moment to let them know you’re deeply uncomfortable and freaked out by what they said, and re-iterate that they should talk to the EAP. It also might have the benefit of not letting them say you’re being rude and mean — you’re clearly reacting to what they’re saying with worry, it’s just that the secondary emotion is alarm, not sympathy.

  108. Sam*

    I think you could try saying ” I don’t think I’m the right person for you to be sharing this information with, could we get back to work?”

  109. I hate that my career is managing men's emotions too.*

    I hate that I’m suggesting you do this, because you shouldn’t have to, but I’ve found recruiting people as allies who are actually offenders can be helpful. I’d take the most reasonable person aside and say something like:

    “Hey… maybe you can help me with something. I know you don’t do this as much as others, but I’ve noticed all the guys tend to use me as a place to share their innermost, intimate thoughts. Lots of really intense depressing discussion. Do they do that with you as well? Do you notice a lot of time at meetings being spent managing other people’s trauma?

    Maybe you can help me troubleshoot this, because obviously I can’t be the recipient of all this. And since it’s everyone, I really don’t want to piss anyone off, since you know what can happen when this crew gets frustrated. Is this something you’d feel comfortable bringing up with your team to see if everyone could back off a bit?”

    But it’d have to be the most reasonable of the crew and the least self-aware at the same time.

  110. Felicity Flowers*

    That’s a super frustrating position to be in, and it looks like you’ve done a lot on your end to counteract it and they just aren’t picking up on the social queue. If other suggestions on here don’t work in shutting them down maybe you can consider controlling the topic small talk from the onset. For example when there’s a pause while the screen is loading ” Are you watching XYZ on TV? I really like that show, Oh no? Do you have any recommendations?” “I’m not looking forward to the winter, I hear we’re going to get a lot of snow? do you do your own snow removal? I’m looking for a company to come in and help any recommendations”

    Granted long term this might not work (because lets face it there’s only so many topics of discussion in the world) but the idea is to put other topics in their heads that they might be able to relate to you on and bring up in the future that are less personal.

  111. t4ci3*

    “I’m sorry, I really need to focus on (thing) right now and don’t have time for small talk. If you’d like to continue this conversation, here’s my number, I will not answer the phone and will delete your message without listening to it, but I have 1 hour of room in voicemail you can use for processing this.”
    (do not really do this, and give them a fake number if you give them anything)
    I think you need to be ready to accept slower response time on your questions for the sake of your mental health, just make sure you document your times so the delays don’t get blamed on you

  112. Another Ashley*

    Be a bad listener and make the conversation awkward. When your coworker starts discussing something really personal, interrupt them. Say sorry I need to go to the bathroom, oops I think I left my phone/purse/keys and at my desk and need to go get it.

    Ask irrelevant and/or derailing questions. If they are complaining about their dad ask them what’s their dad’s astrological sign? Was he a middle child? Is he vegan? If they ask why you’re asking just say, “oh I know a person like that and he’s a vegan so I wonder if there’s a connection” or some other BS.

    Don’t comfort them or engage the conversation. Say, “I’m really sorry you’re going thorough that I hope things work out.” And pivot the conversation to another topic. Don’t offer recommendations or ask clarifying questions about their story.

    Be polite but don’t seem really invested in their story. Don’t give the normal social cues that you are actively listening (eye contact, head nods, etc) instead look at your computer screen while they are talking. Be weirdly quiet the entire time they are talking and when they stop speaking pause a little longer than normal before you respond. And keep your response short and generic.

    They are trauma dumping on you so that you can comfort them and they can unburden themselves. Don’t give them comfort. Be polite and professional but make the conversation as awkward as possible.

  113. Bees Knees*

    You could try stonewalling-light maybe.. just not respond or not even allow them a way in by saying “oh yeah?” if they throw a little lure in during small talk. Or just be a matter of fact and say you’re not really qualified to answer personal questions and they should look for a therapist/councellor for help. And keep repeating the same answer, flatly. Just don’t be overly nice/helpful/open, or they’ll keep doing it.. which you’ve tried but sounds like you’re giving them a way in still. Could you possibly ask via chat or email instead? That way there’s no conversation space for them to interject. I’m sorry you’re going through this sexist crap.

  114. Mystic Llama*

    Everyone has some really great comments so far. I’ve been stereotyped into the warm and nurturing personality because of my perceived lady bits; instead, I’ve worked fairly hard on the ice cold slightly heartless vibe. If people accuse me of being a jerk, at least I’m a professional jerk. If some of the scripts don’t work, perhaps an option is to act like you heard absolutely nothing not related to work. Talk over them, interrupt them, keep the topic solely on work. Anytime they start trauma dumping interrupt and get right back to the topic at hand. If they try to hijack, stare at them like they are speaking the language of the cats and you don’t understand it. There’s a lot to be said for non-verbal confused expressions that border on disgust.

  115. Long Time Lurker*

    I wish I had some good advice. I have spent hours performing emotional labor just to get mediocre men to do the basics of their jobs.

  116. Delphine*

    You need to learn how to close a conversation before it begins. This is something most people have to learn because they’re generally good conversationalists and their instinct is to continue the conversation out of politeness/genuine interest. Learning to “end” a conversation before it begins is a really great way to avoid using some of the other suggestions, which may be or may *feel* needlessly hostile/cruel/rude.

    For example, in your example conversation, I might have said:

    – Coworker: “So how are things? Glad that Turtle Lovers project is over, huh?”
    – Me: “Yes, that one was a doozy! A bit frustrating, but my team is on the ball.”
    – Coworker: “Ha, yeah. You know, I was having a hard time lately too.”
    – Me: Well, hopefully, it’ll all let up soon! Thanks for your help XYZ, I’ve got a call to prepare for, so I’ll let you go now.

    In this case, my goal is to make sure I get a word in before they start their dump, and that I clearly tell them I have something else to do.

    If they dump before I have a chance to indicate we’re done, I’ll say, “I’m so sorry to hear that. I hope things look up for you soon. Thanks for taking the time to help with me XYZ. I’ve got to get back to work now, so I’ll let you go now.”

    The goal is to do your best to quickly end the conversation so that they are not getting what they want from it (1. the ability to vent to you, to release the problems that are weighing on them, which honestly feels really great when you’re struggling with things privately, which is why they are doing it, and 2. to have someone empathize with them, and recognize their struggle/pain). You can do this before they dump and after they start.

    You want to avoid any responses that allow them to pick up the conversation again. Anything that isn’t a clear “end.” As you repeat this, they should gradually stop. But you need to be consistent.

    If this doesn’t work, the next step would be to try some of the harsher options that people have suggested above.

  117. Sybil Rights*

    Yes, talk to your boss. Stress how uncomfortable the interactions make you as well as the level of inefficiency you believe not having appropriate access to the database is for someone in your role. I think I would rather have the appropriate system access than have to deal with HR or backlash because they don’t respond well to being told to stop trauma dumping. (People who thoughtlessly trauma dump on the regular are unlikely to respond well to being called out on it. Having to come up with and deliver the call out is just MORE emotional labour for you. :-( ugh.)
    So sometimes a bit of the tactical distraction can be your friend. As soon as the program starts to work and you sense you are heading into trauma territory, get a tickle in your throat. (no coughing on people, just clear your throat a couple of times) “um. excuse me a sec, I need to get a drink of water.” Other classics: brb, need the loo; pretend to receive a text or call and excuse self for a moment. Go grab yourself a couple of hundred steps in the hall and come back around the time the program should be finished. Alternately, make a comment about something on their desk or in the office – they probably won’t have an object on their desk that reminds them of bad memories. Find something to compliment them on. Or ask them if they’ve heard Taylor Swift’s new album. No? what do they listen to? Try to head them off at the pass with something more upbeat or amusing than their normal default. Yes, still emotional labor, but not nearly as ennervating as listening to abject sadness.
    Good luck!

  118. Snarkastic*

    Gee…I wonder why they feel this is appropriate to do with you? I’m sure it has nothing to do wtih you being the only woman…

    Cut them off with, “That sounds really tough. Perhaps you should take this up with a professional. We all have a lot on our plates. Anyway, is this the right file?”

    Although it sounds like they ignore you no matter what you say, because they are so intent on sharing.

  119. I am Emily's failing memory*

    Is there any way you can get what you need from them through an email thread instead of having to be on a call/sitting in the room with them while they look it up?

    My first reaction was “gray rock” – don’t give them any response they’ll find rewarding and maybe they’ll stop trying – but it seems like you’re already more or less doing that, if they’re just monologuing while you sit there in silence and/or talking over you when you try to change the subject. So gray rocking is not working and even gray rocking while being subjected to their monologues is putting a continued burden on you that you shouldn’t have to deal with.

    So, if you really feel like directly telling them to cut it out is off the table, do these sessions really have to be a shared real-time experience? I imagine they’d be less likely to dump this all out into an email, and if they did, it’d be a lot easier to skim past it than sit there listening to it.

  120. LeAnn*

    Best advice- give them horrible advice while sounding like you mean it. Express compassion but tell them what to do. You are offering an ear which is what people want. They don’t want advice so try that. Eg- my dad is sick. Oh no, have you tried essential oils. My aunt took this one and it healed her. Hopefully they will stop sharing when they stop getting what they want. Also, you could try- im not qualified to help with that, but here’s a therapist card.

  121. Cookies for Breakfast*

    I can’t give much advice, but wanted to offer sympathy as this happened to me at a former workplace. The culprits were my manager, and the senior lead of the team I worked most closely with. It went on for over a year.

    I didn’t feel like I was able to do much about it (aside from changing the subject and going back to work topics, which worked some of the time). That was for a number of reasons. The team lead’s emotional dumping was clearly driven by workplace stress, and because I was also quietly burning out, I kept trying to be sympathetic as that’s what I’d have wanted others to do for me. With my manager it was even more complicated, because it was all personal matters, but the power differential made it tough to say “I don’t need to know this much detail about your marriage”. Higher-up managers were more rulers by fear than listening ears, and were out to get people in our teams for other made-up reasons, to which I didn’t want to add. So I grinned and beared it, until both men eventually left at different times (it took me a few more months to also leave).

    The one thing I realised, both as it was all happening and upon reflecting on it afterwards, was how all this was a clear sign of the way they saw women in the workplace. At the start I was kind of pleased that they’d confide in me, because I was new to the team and keen to build warm relationships. Then I wondered whether they had the same conversations with male colleagues (I had strong clues that the answer was no). Then I realised how much all the emotional dumping detracted from the valuable work we could do together, with me being the one to suffer the most from it (they had specialist skill sets I was supposed to learn from, but never shared any of that with me, much as I asked). At last, once my manager left and the full extent of how much he’d kept me from growing in my role was revealed, and I joined the dots from other stuff I’d seen and trusted colleagues also experienced, I saw the bigger picture: I was working with people who deliberately limited the part women could play in our department, and none of the men who had hired my manager or the senior lead would have acted any differently.

    I wonder if any of this might apply to your situation, OP. Do any of the strategies from the other comments give you confidence you can try addressing this, or is it a symptom of a wider pattern in your workplace culture? And in that case, could it be worth looking for outside opportunities?

  122. Cat Lady in the Mountains*

    Omgd this happens to me ~all the time~ (not to this degree, but being the “dumping ground for things you should talk to your therapist about” on my team). What’s been most effective for me — which, admittedly, works well with my genuine awkward demeanor — is just being profoundly awkward. While you SHOULD just be able to tell them to stop/draw boundaries, I’ve found it easier to just make it profoundly unsatisfying to talk to me about personal stuff.

    So like, them: “Yeah, my dad is in a home. Dementia, you know, so he doesn’t recognize me.” etc.

    Me: (fidgets, gets a little wide-eyed, not making eye contact, visibly uncomfortable, checking my phone for an out) …. um. …. ok …. not really sure what to say to that.

    Them: (keeps talking about thing)

    Me: … yeahhhh … Sounds rough. I have to get back to work.

    Them: (keeps talking about thing)

    Me, still looking super-uncomfortable: I’m really not the person to talk to about this kind of thing. (Usually followed by either picking up my phone and pretend-calling someone or getting up and walking to the kitchen/bathroom/wherever I can get away from them.)

    I’ve found that reads to these guys as “wow Cat Lady is really bad at this” rather than “wow Cat Lady is being insensitive,” so I can preserve the working relationship.

  123. Ellis Bell*

    So, if you really don’t want to ride this one out through HR and your boss (and you really, really should be able to, but sometimes it’s horses for courses), I’d probably go with a few ideas in which you defer all questions of personal angst to others’ while shrugging like how could you possibly know what to do? As in, 1) referring him to the dudes: “So what does Mark think? Huh, weird he’s your closest desk mate. So Rob has an idea of what to do, huh? So who knows about this on the team? Lol, I know you haven’t told just me (me!) and not the team! Do you want Sam to weigh in on this?” Keep going until you make it patently, obviously clear how weird it is that he’s only come to you
    – out of all the people he’s known longer – with this. There’s also a hint that you’re not seeing this as a confidential one-on-one session which might give them pause. 2) You can also refer them to ‘anybody but me’ also known as the male trick of weaponised helplessness. Put all your EQ skills in the bin and look very anxious, almost panic struck: “Oh wow, that is way above my pay grade. I have no idea what to say” and let the silent awkwardness draw out infinitely. Visibly squirm if they plough on until you can say”I am… wow. I guess I would suck at a “Dear OP” column huh?” You want the words: “Wow, I’m just no good with emotional problems” to become a catch phrase if possible.
    3) You can respond as if of course they didn’t mean to say it out loud to you, as they must have their own therapist/be speaking to the EAP. “Oh, are you talking about this stuff with EAP/a therapist? It sounds like you’re still processing a session out loud.” If they say “No” just say “Oh you totally should! Let’s face it you’re not going to get good advice from us turtle jockeys!” From there, if they still think you’re their mummy, you should try grey rocking a completely bland response like: “uh huh” “hmm” and “you don’t say”, no matter how awkward it seems (awkwardness is your friend!). Every single time, keep dropping your eyes to the papers or fiddling with the keys and looking at the screen until you’re totally unsatisfactory to talk to.

  124. KateAK*

    I ran a construction company side by side with my late husband for over 40 years. The guys working for us found time to stand beside me on the job and share emotional ( for them) thoughts & concerns. I came to realize that men couldn’t easily talk about what bothers them, with their wife, or significant. Society & family norm makes them the “strong one.” They found it easier to take their personal trauma to the work place to vocalize and sort out. Sad really, a little part of the change in man-women relationships society hasn’t fully worked out as roles change. I think you need to practice a little compassion, it goes far in building loyalty and personal relationships that will carry over for years just to listen. This doesn’t take much.

    1. Not Your Admin Ass(t)*

      This is terrible advice, and many, many, MANY comments here, as well as Alison’s reply, have said why this is terrible. Stop putting the burden on the OP when it’s the coworkers who need to stop acting entitled to free therapy from an nonconsenting woman.

    2. ShysterB*

      That’s a big nope from me to this advice. OP “practice[d] a little compassion” and the only thing she got from that was an involuntary and unwanted role as trauma dumping ground. It’s not on her, or any woman in the workplace, to carry that emotional weight for male co-workers. Your advice amounts to little more than “that’s the way it has always been, and therefore that is the way it will always be and OP should just go along with it.”

      1. KateAK*

        I’m not here to start a debate or argument but understand I conquered the women in a new role many, many years ago. I’ve never been a secretary, I spent my life in heavy construction building bridges, docks, loading barges, building roads. I started out with an excavator and a truck and was well established when I met my husband, who always treated me as an equal and let me be the best I could be. When I stepped in to heavy construction I spent years as the only women on a project; I employed & managed 100+/- men below me and interacted, contracted with only men above me, supervising my performance. I earned respect for my capabilities & my mind. Women sometimes get lost, trying to be treated equally, they forget to treat men as equals & people too. I didn’t stand in their midst saying “don’t dump on me” I treated everyone as people who have problems, and maybe need to talk to someone, didn’t take much from me at all, & made them feel a little better. It built my team, my relationships, as my co-workers felt someone cared. Notice I didn’t call them employees.
        And give Allison a little credit; she doesn’t profess to be god, opens the column questions to comments as there are many points of view to learn from.

        1. metadata minion*

          Treating men as equals, for me, means treating them as reasonable people who don’t want to make their coworkers uncomfortable and can be spoken to like adults. I’m happy to be a sounding board occasionally if someone has just recently had some sort of crisis; my coworkers have done the same for me. And I agree that toxic masculinity hurts men too and doesn’t give many men a healthy emotional life or appropriate ways to talk about their feelings. But the latter is *not my problem to fix and certainly not at work.* It is not the LW’s job to constantly be a shoulder to cry on.

        2. still anon for this*

          I can tell from your reply that you know how to manage a conversation, though. These men shared with you, but it doesn’t sound like they controlled the conversation, or that you let them take it wherever without any input from you. You managed, you made sure the work was done. Those are key points. For the LW, I sense that she does not know how to or does not feel empowered to direct the conversations and ensure work gets done. The letter indicates that she feels that she is in a bit of a hostage situation — she must listen to stories about family dysfunction and failure as the price of getting technical work done.

          So a question for LW is, if she changes the story she tells herself (and maybe tries on the KateAK story), could that change her actions, and thus the interactions?

        3. Calamity Janine*

          if you want these men to have improved emotional ability and freedom, though… then why did you gleefully reinforce the toxic message of “nowhere is safe for you to have emotions so the least bad place is dumping it all on a random lady at work because she’s a lady and also at work”?

          sure, you made them feel a little better. but they didn’t get better. once you were gone to remove that band-aid, they still limped around bleeding and in pain… and confused about why it even hurts, much less about how to fix it.

          really, that’s not helping them. that’s setting them up for failure later on, rather spectacularly, because you wanted them to be dependent on you instead of actually being healthier of mindset.

          yikesaroonie! i happen to like dudes enough that i want to actually help them, not give them fake “help” that’s designed to blow up in their faces!

        4. Ellis Bell*

          Kate you were their boss, and it doesn’t sound like they steam rollered over you in these conversations, they were consensual. There’s also much more in it for you as a boss to be invested in your employee’s welfare. OP shouldn’t have to do this much extra work to get collaboration time with a colleague, just because she is a woman. You do make some good points about relationships paying off, but quantity and context is everything.

    3. Despachito*

      But the workplace is NOT an appropriate place to resolve those issues.

      Why should an innocent coworker suffer because someone is unable to overcome some “society and family norms”? I get that if somebody is having a rough patch he/she does vent a bit at work, and appreciates a few kind words. But I’d also expect this person an adult who is not so clueless to think that their coworkers are their therapists, and will know better than constantly overwhelm them.

      I’d absolutely not mind if I bump into Wakeen in the kitchenette and he tells me that he just had to drive his elderly mom to a hospital and that he is very worried for her. It will cost me nothing to show him some compassion, as I can imagine I’d appreciate this myself were I in his situation, and it is an one-off thing. My friend’s elderly mum recently died, and when he told his boss the boss’s response was very callous (like “what did you expect, at her age? we are going to lose our parents some time, that’s life”). I think it is awful, it would have cost him nothing to say “I am so sorry, that must be tough”.

      But I am absolutely not interested to hear long rants about someone’s relationship/psychological/marital problems and to bear a brunt of the fact he is unable to talk about it. I think that normal people should be aware of that, and if they are not, I think I am fully within my rights to refuse.

      1. tamarack and fireweed*

        Yup, this. It’s not about one-off compassion as human beings should always exercise. It’s about repeated, habitual, inappropriate oversharing that is really hard to justify.

    4. tamarack and fireweed*

      With all due respect – and I do respect your choice to be that emotional punching ball for the guys who haven’t digested feminism, which I *do* understand isn’t only their own fault – you were the co-boss of the company. Not, like the OP, a random employee who had to interact with the guys in question just to get her job done. You had a lot more agency in the situation than she has – and also, a lot more influence on these guys working conditions.

      Clearly something is going askew in the team when multiple guys thing it’s ok to just blithely lean on a co-worker’s emotional support, without her consent and clearly outside her role. If their *manager* decides to let them lean on him or her, well, I doubt it’ll help, but in the spirit of compassion etc., fine! But a peer, and potentially more junior co-worker whose focus is necessarily getting very specific tasks sorted, it’s really not something one should expect from her.

    5. Student*

      KateAK, I made a similar choice in my own career as a woman in a highly male-dominated field to indulge this from men. I think it’s a valid choice to make, but I don’t think it’s the only choice to make, and I don’t think it’s right for the OP.

      For one, trauma-dumping bothered me (and evidently, you) a lot less than it bothers the OP. I bet you had your fair share of hard knocks in your life. Part of why people trauma-dumping on me didn’t bother me was, it was usually a big deal to the man who was sharing, but a pretty minor deal to me – I’d already dealt with much worse or heard much worse. So their trauma didn’t phase me and didn’t seem all that… traumatic in the moment. However, the trauma-dumping is bothering the OP a lot. Whatever these guys are sharing, it’s a big deal to her and weighs her down – maybe due to the type of trauma they have, or the magnitude of the guys’ trauma, or maybe because she has had a life with very little trauma exposure so far.

      For another, the OP doesn’t sound like she particularly likes or respects these guys. Her entire portrayal of them is a team of people who are barriers to her doing her job, people who she has to treat as delicate flowers to avoid offending – not people who have her back at work, not people who are good at their actual job, not people who are even moderately friendly to her. You obviously liked your co-workers to some degree. I liked many of my co-workers. That’s not the case here. I wouldn’t want to provide emotional support to guys who were undermining me at work, either. I’m sure you ran into some guys in your career who were mainly just obstacles to be overcome – if you have those people in mind, where loyalty and personal relationships are a one-way street leading away from you, would you be keen to spend your time being compassionate towards them?

  125. nonprofit writer*

    LW, you have all my sympathy—but also wanted to say, great title for this post, Alison!

  126. Keymaster of Gozer*

    *waves from women in tech hell*

    I’ve been the unwanted emotional caryatid for so many people at work in the past simply because they assume woman = emotional dumping ground.

    Problem is, I really don’t have a normal brain and processing emotion isn’t my strong point.

    And it’s so difficult to get away when someone is going through a really distressing time and is telling you ALL about it.

    I’ve finally settled on ‘I’m not the right audience for this’ when stuff gets too personal/heavy/going to set me PTSD off. Said in a kind, but firm manner and put on repeat if it doesn’t sink in the first time.

  127. This INFJ is tired, y'all*

    I’m an INFJ and, whether you ascribe to such things or not, this has been my life. I’ve had literal strangers plop down next to me…on a plane, at the dentist, once while I was doing yard work…and start telling me their darkest, most painful secrets.

    I have no advice on how to make them stop, unfortunately. I’ve gotten really good at compartmentalizing it so I don’t take their pain and sadness into my energy. When appropriate, I suggest they need to talk to the EAP, speak with a counselor or get a marriage counselor.

    I’m sorry this is making you so uncomfortable and I hope you can find a way to get them to stop.

  128. CM*

    Just say vaguely “Oh” and don’t engage beyond that. Walk away as soon as you can, while thanking them for their help with the work question, even if it feels like you’re cutting them off — just pretend you don’t realize they want to keep talking. “So when my stepdad threw out the tulips, it was really hard for me…” “Oh! Well, thank you so much for your help.”

    I do think this will take a little time. While I agree with the commenters reminding you this isn’t your fault, I think if you start out with empathy, then it will take at least a few weeks of disengagement to reset their expectations.

  129. RT*

    I really feel like the problem here is that there is a bottleneck on access. It should be simple to get read only access to relevant databases as it’s required as a part of your role. Get that problem fixed and then you won’t be dependent on completing therapy lessons to get work done.

  130. Be the Grey Rock you wish to see in the world*

    “Coworker: “So how are things? Glad that Turtle Lovers project is over, huh?” (It always starts with normal small talk, which is fine! It’s fine to say “I’ve had a crazy week” or “My daughter is home sick.”)

    Me: “Yes, that one was a doozy! A bit frustrating, but my team is on the ball.”

    Change to: Um-hmm or yes.

    Coworker: “Ha, yeah. You know, I was having a hard time lately too.”

    Me:*hoping this is about WORK* “Oh yeah?” (I want to note that I don’t even get to respond before they get to the next line.)

    Change to: NOTHING. Say nothing. Give no indication you heard it and move on.

    1. LegalEagle*

      This is similar to what I would advise. If you don’t want to address the problem with them directly, you’ll have to start doing creative social maneuvering to stop them before they get a chance to bring you their emotional problems. I’d recommend doing that by filling the space with inane chatter before they get the chance to.

      Coworker: How are things? Glad that project is over huh?
      Me: Yes, that one was a doozy. I just watched SHOW OR MOVIE, have you seen it?

      If they say yes, you now lead a discussion group about that thing. Tell them who your favorite character is, ask them who their favorite character is, what did they think of the end, etc. If they haven’t seen it, hit them with your pitch for it, or tell them why they should skip it. Then pick something in it they may know (an actor, a writer) and talk about them.

      The tricky part of this is that if they give you nothing, you have to be prepared to hold forth about the topic (can you believe Steve Buscemi’s never been nominated for an Oscar, how is that possible, he has so many great roles also did you know he was in Monsters Inc, I forgot that, anyway what other great actors have gone so ignored, etc etc), cheerfully ignoring the fact that your conversation partner wants to move it along so he can get to the important business of telling you everything that went wrong in his life. I find bubbly chatterbox can usually keep a conversation afloat for around two minutes, at which point hopefully the thing has loaded and you can get to the important business of training.

  131. HugsAreNotTolerated*

    Others have given more thorough advice already so I’ll just suggest deploying some of these.

    “Wow, um okay. That’s a lot to take in on a Tuesday afternoon”
    Semi-joking “you know, I’m pretty sure you’ve told me more about your personal life than my best friend”
    “That’s kind of a weird thing to tell a co-worker.”
    “I love my therapist, do you want their number?”
    “It sounds like you could use someone to talk to who’s qualified to help you talk through that”
    “You’ve told me some pretty disturbing stuff lately, our health insurance has some great resources for counseling”
    “I don’t think I’m the right person for you to be talking with about this”
    Deadpan – “Wow, okay I’m definitely not the person you should be talking to about this”
    “That sounds like a highly personal issue, I can’t offer any help here”
    “What an absolutely bizarre thing to say to a co-worker”

  132. QuinleyThorne*

    In my experience with trauma-dumping coworkers, there are two things that tend to ring true:

    1) Oftentimes, it’s not a conscious act on their part, so they neither realize they’re doing it nor how often by extension.
    2) It speaks to the overall culture of this workplace that there is a whole team of people who are doing this with alarming regularity.

    OP, you mentioned that while you have only been here two years, the rest of the staff have been here for 10 years or more; I think it might be worth considering that this is a workplace culture issue. Two years isn’t a short amount of time per se, but compared to 10 years in this environment it’s no wonder that you’re the only one to not only notice this behavior, but recognize that it’s not normal! Chances are for the longer-term employees, this is just the water they’ve been swimming in and since it hasn’t been addressed effectively (or at all as the case may be) it’s been normalized.

    As far as what to do, I agree with other commenters that directing them toward EAP in the moment, looping in your boss, and then documenting the issue with HR are good steps. Also, if there any other new/new-ish employees (3-5 years), try reaching out to them about the issue to see if it matches your experience. Maybe it’s a workplace culture thing, or maybe it’s just your team, but either way it could provide some further insight. But if you’re not confident that will change anything and leaving the job isn’t something you want or can afford, you could try just…asking your coworkers why they keep doing this. This will obviously depend on your level of rapport with each person, but the next time coworker brings up a personal issue, you could say: “Is there any specific reason you’re bringing up [Personal issue X] in a meeting about [Work Issue Y] right now?” And just see what they say. It will probably sound awkward or blunt to say it that way, but juxtaposing the personal issue with the thing you’re supposed to be meeting will highlight how weird it is that they’re bringing it up in the first place, and might be enough to derail their momentum. I imagine if you keep doing it this way, they’ll also begin to realize how often it’s happening.

    Good luck, and I hope this can help!

  133. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    Here’s the thing. It’s not about the trauma talk. It’s that LW is worried about what happens after she pushes back. But pushing back about non-work topics is not something that she needs to apologize for, and she DEFINITELY doesn’t need to manage their feelings about it.

    You get to decline to discuss non-work topics while doing work things. And if this means that the Trauma Team all run back into their safe place and lick their wounds about not getting to trauma dump instead of, you know, doing the work that they are supposed to do, then LW gets to say “Gee boss, I don’t understand why the Trauma Team isn’t responding to my work request in a timely fashion and it’s going to push my deadline, can you help?”

    And this is NOT throwing them under the bus. This is saying, “Gee boss, the Trauma Boys are all curled up under the bus already, could you please pull them out?”

    1. Student*

      That would not work in any job I’ve had where I dealt with this dynamic. Maybe it’ll work here – I hope so, for the OP’s sake – but not all workplaces function like that.

      I’m sure it’s very industry-specific and job-specific, but most of my managers have been figureheads with little power and no motivation to help their direct reports manage problems like this. The other managers, ones with the power to do something, were too busy to be bothered with their direct report’s problems. I can’t think of any point in my career where I could complain about something like this and get anything back other than advice like, “You better find a way to appease the Trauma Boys on your own! I hear they like donuts from Local Donut Place, maybe you should buy some with your own money to bury the hatchet and hope they start working with you again!”

  134. Minimal Pear*

    Anyone here familiar with the “Baby Runs For President” tactic? I’m not sure it would be a GOOD thing to try here but it would be very funny.

    1. Rumpling*

      I think they see OP as a generic sympathetic woman – they know they will get a listening ear from her.

      So the thing to change is that impression. Don’t engage in small talk. Say at the start of conversations that time is limited. As soon as the conversation turns towards the personal either firmly steer it back to work “I really need your help with X before we finish” or announce a need to suddenly leave for a meeting/personal phone call/glass of water.

  135. LG*

    I would say “You know, you’re the third person today to tell me their personal problems, like I’m a therapist or something. Why do people do that?”

  136. Saffy_Taffy*

    One time a coworker who always overshared sat down next to me and started reading the letter her therapist had her write to her abusive father, and I said, “I’m sorry but if you keep reading I’m going to cry.” And she stopped.
    So… can you try crying? Or vomiting, that might work even better.
    “My dad never loved me,”
    *DRY HEAVE*
    “glee club recital,”
    *WRETCH* … *GAG*

  137. CheetoFingers*

    What’s going on at this company? I joined this firm to groom llamas and polish teapots, not hose down amphibians and rub shells!
    But yeah, this is very mich a gendered issue. I have a lot of compassion for your coworkers though. I wonder if you could say something like “Wow that’s awful! I don’t think I’m qualified to give advice and wouldn’t want to steer you wrong. Have you tried talking to someone with training in caretaker burnout” (or whatever the case may be). A gentle redirect that still shows concern but clarifies that you aren’t a therapist might be the way to go. That might be too subtle for some folks though.

  138. TurtleMom*

    I haven’t even read the whole question yet but I think turtle analyst might be the best fake job title yet! Then again, maybe I’m biased…

  139. Joanna*

    OK, so this falls under advice you should not take. But just imagine how satisfying it would be if one of these dudes starts his dump, and you start getting upset, and if you can do it, even start to cry. Then through tears say, “I’m so sorry, but your situation is triggering me and I’m having trouble keeping it together.” I bet the dude would wrap it up pretty quickly in that case. And, if you are good at making things up on the fly, once you start crying, make up a story for why you are crying, and make it difficult for him to end the conversation without being rude. Return awkward to sender.

    Like I said, do not actually do it. But you can dream.

  140. CommanderBanana*

    Ah yes, welcome to the thankless, draining, unpaid emotional labor you are expected to perform when you’re born AFAB.

  141. Project Manager*

    Notify your boss and then start recording these sessions. Not (exclusively) because you need evidence of this behavior, but because recording training sessions will help in a number of ways:
    1. You’ll be able to share this recording with other team members if they have the same question WITHOUT burdening the admin team in the future (win!)
    2. You’ll be able to go back to a recording if you need a refresher WITHOUT needing to disrupt the other team (win!)
    3. When people are on a recording, they are much less likely to overshare.
    4. You’ll have evidence of oversharing, should it continue to happen.
    I employed this strategy in a similar situation (although I was doing the training and they were the trainees) after all the nice “you should talk to a therapist” and “have you reached out to the EAP?” failed. It worked exceptionally well. Some earlier commenters mentioned privacy, but yeah, this is not a privacy issue. This is creating training documentation which will enable other team members to be trained and lower the burden on an overburden team.
    I wish you nothing but luck. You got this.

  142. KN*

    There are a lot of good and creative suggestions for how to talk to these guys here, but the part that I keep coming back to is, “they will just stop helping if I irritate them. They took a month to help my boss with access because of some perceived slight.”

    You seem emotionally intelligent, good at communicating, and fully capable of setting boundaries… when you’re not being held hostage by people who are apparently able and willing to sabotage your career. That seems like the core issue here, not finding the perfect script to get these guys to back off without hurting their feelings.

    I think the best course of action is to spend 10% of your energy deciding what script you want to use next time this happens, and 90% figuring out how to protect yourself (in terms of your job performance and reputation) in the likely case that there IS no script that will make this stop without risking their retaliation. Can you document it if they refuse to help you, or get an email paper trail? Loop your boss in to more requests? Loop someone above your boss in, since your boss seems to be at their mercy also? If you don’t believe any of this would help, then I agree with the commenters who’ve said you need to start job searching.

  143. Anne*

    I would recommend asking each tech guy for advice about what to do with this problem. For example, before you launch into any small talk during one of these meetings, say, “I was hoping you could give me some advice. Sometimes when I ask techs for help, they launch into some really personal stories.” Then give some specific examples about other techs. “I’m so uncomfortable when people share such personal information with me at work. What do you think I should do?”

    Guys love to give advice. If they give you advice, then follow at the next time they engage in that behavior themselves. Either they will recognize themselves and be embarrassed (rather than defensive and angry) or you will have an opportunity to see if their advice works on them. How fun would it be to say at your next meeting, “I tried following your advice about people sharing personal stuff and it didn’t work. Do you have any other ideas?”

  144. CLC*

    From what you describe it doesn’t sound like you’ve done this to yourself, and what the coworkers are doing isn’t a normal response to light small talk (I like to conversations with normal small talk and this doesn’t happen to me!). I think these guys are stressed with life stuff like most people (it really ramps up in middle age) and if their immediate team is all male they probably bottle it up with each other and then release too much on you! If it’s not derailing the work too much I would maybe just ignore it? I know it’s annoying—everyone has a coworker that over shares—but having a bunch of them sounds rough. Not really sure what else can be done.

  145. Tesuji*

    Sorry, but this feels like a post where key information was left out, making 90% of the comments worthless, which is frustrating.

    One of the LW’s comments makes it sound like waiting a month would actually be a normal waiting period based on how deep the queue is for support, so they’re letting her jump ahead because of how much they like talking to her.

    If so, then the *real* issue is “I work somewhere in which the normal system doesn’t give me the level of support I need in my job, and I’m getting around that by being friendly with the admins. How do I pull back on how friendly I am with the admins without losing the special privileges they’re giving me?”

    All of the comments about how the LW can shut this down are completely correct. It’s pretty easy. Just make it a *thing* by going to HR or her boss or just very clearly not being receptive to their personal discussions.

    … and then she goes to the back of the line with the normal folks.

    If the bottleneck of how backed up these people are isn’t going to change, then this kind of feels like you pick a lane. “How do I get special friend-level treatment while also putting limits on the level of friendship?” feels a bit… entitled?

    1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

      My takeaway from that bit about the boss waiting for a month was more that they kept telling him they’d do it but then didn’t, or told him to see with someone else, or the guy who normally did it was on holiday. rather than working to a ticket system.

      1. megan_c*

        I believe Tesugi is referring to this comment made by the OP on Nov 3 11:49am: (She called herself something like “LW Turtle Admin” rather than OP.)
        “And it taking a month is standard process. They each have a queue of 200 requests monthly, so it’s slow going. However, I get to either skip the line or nudge a project forward. The admins are super helpful, and I am learning how to solve most of this myself after one session, but geez. I’m just exhausted.”

        I agree with Tesugi. OP can skip the line in exchange for emotional labour or she can join the standard 1-month line.

        Should she get a job at a workplace where there isn’t a 1-month wait for necessary database support services? Absolutely. If she stays in this job and chooses the “join the standard 1-month line” route she should explain to her manager that her own turn-around time is about to take a big hit as she’s not going to get special treatment from IT anymore. If IT retaliates by making her wait more than the standard month? This is a problem. In this case she’s getting worse treatment, likely on account of her refusing to perform her gender as they expect her to. Document and raise with manager and HR.

  146. Lulu*

    People hate being told they need therapy, but offering them resources is a way of being empathetic and recognizing they’re sharing something hard without having to directly engage with the content. Maybe it would be helpful to have a couple of hotlines, EAP, and therapist referrals on hand for these moments. Then when they overshare, you can simply say “That sounds like you might benefit from having someone to talk to about it. I’m going to drop you an email with the xyz hotline number and a Psychology Today search with therapists in our area who accept our insurance. I hope you find support with some of those resources.”

    The benefit is two-fold: If they’re just dumping on you, you’ll be unsatisfying and they’ll stop. If they really need the help, you’ll have handed them off to someone who’s qualified.

  147. Cammyboomy*

    I think what I would do is whenever they start the verbal diarrhea, I would visibly have my eyes glaze over. I would pick up my phone and start texting. I wouldn’t even do non-commital mmhmm’s but would straight up act as if they are thin air. As soon as they come back to the task at hand, I would immediately engage again.

    As for the retaliation, people will always take the path of least resistance. If you make it more annoying to not do their work to help you in retaliation, than it is to just do whatever you need from them, then they will do it. If you have a ticket outstanding for [longer than average response time for non-retaliatory matters], I would send daily email follow ups. Daily voicemails. Teams/Slack messages whenever it occurs to me during the day. Cc their supervisor “hi just checking on status it’s been [x days] since my request. Schedule these to go out automatically in Outlook if I have to. Cc MY supervisor and their supervisor “need X for Y. Boss your assignment is not getting done until I get this taken care of!” They’ll fold.

  148. kina lillet*

    Couple strategies to bro-zone these guys:

    -Take time after seeing their message to respond to it
    -Always have to run to the bathroom right after the meeting (or, use it as an excuse for late response)
    -Change the tone of your messages to be still friendly but casual and distant/warm—instead of warm and relational. “Damn dude that’s rough” after half an hour instead of “oh my god I’m so sorry” immediately

  149. Quokka*

    Any chance you can circumvent it? In the hows things going bit ask about something non-work related that might swing towards interests and hobbies? Ie did you see the latest episode of GOT?? Or asking what they do for fun to help generate more bland weather convos?
    If they are doing you a bit of a favour by letting you skip the line, then showing an interest in them/generating a kind of relationship might be what they want in return, and currently they are forcing you into that (possibly due to poor social skills). Coming up with a new way to build that relationship might be all this needs.

    If you can get a few of those conversations going, then not only will you have different things to talk about, if they do slip into the woe is me stuff you can say “I enjoy talking to you when I come over here, but can we stick to GOT? This stuff is a bit heavy for me”.

  150. All Het Up About It*

    This is so frustrating and I think there are a lot of tacks you can take.

    One I don’t think I’ve seen is possibly filling the silence with your own inane chatter. While I do NOT believe that you’ve done this to yourself, OP, and please, please shake that, one way to stop them filling the void with their emotional baggage is to eliminate the void.

    Talk about something. Anything. Bonus points if it’s something they probably aren’t interested in. Turn yourself into someone who they want to get things done quickly because otherwise they’ll have to listen to you talk about your nieces Halloween costume, your latest knitting project, the 42 step pie crust recipe you found, how you are trying to decide between a wide receiver or a tight end in your Fantasy Football flex possession because everyone on your team is on Bye this week, and you think you are going to be the first person to lose to the only team in your league that hasn’t won a game….

    I imagine you are not a natural chatter, and prefer to keep things business, so this might feel uncomfortable, or you might want to try other suggestions first, but it’s an option.

  151. H. Regalis*

    There may not be a northwest passage for this, where they do their job and stop treating you as Designated Female Listener.

    To reiterate: You didn’t do anything to bring this on yourself. You’re making normal conversation and they’re taking a mile on an inch and oversharing. And they’re doing it with you because you’re a woman. It’s sexist bullshit.

    They know what they’re doing, their boss won’t tell them to stop, and they apparently have enough power to make things difficult for you if you don’t comply.

    If you can get higher ups to give you a way around them, that would work. If not, your options are going to be listen to their bullshit, get treated like dirt, or find a new job.