can I tell the office jerk not to talk to me outside of work?

A reader writes:

The organization I work for is based in a small rural community, so it’s not uncommon to turn up to something like an exercise class, community event, or supermarket and find yourself face to face with someone from work. Quite often, that also ends up being the person at work who makes everyone miserable, Cassandra.

For context, our CEO (Stephanie) likes to micromanage all things HR-related herself. The organization has an external HR consultant but most of us do not have permission to approach this consultant directly. As a result, any interpersonal conflict that can’t be dealt with by the individuals involved ends up on Stephanie’s desk.

Cassandra is incredibly good at being two-faced. She has the wool completely pulled over Stephanie’s eyes, to the point that when coworkers approach her about Cassandra’s behavior, Stephanie can’t possibly imagine that Cassandra would have intentionally caused upset and always comes down on Cassandra’s side. Some of these complaints have been quite serious, but she is always given the benefit of the doubt.

I was also fooled by Cassandra for a long time, so I understand exactly how good she is at manipulating those around her. But one day I stood my ground when she tried to steam-roll me, and then I became a target for her nastiness. I have had things thrown at my desk instead of handed to my outstretched hand, simply for going to buy a coffee with another coworker and not buying her one (we didn’t offer to buy anyone coffee, and it was our designated break, so it wasn’t like we deliberately excluded her) and yelled at for doing my work correctly instead of her way. She withholds information I need to do my job, and so on. I tried to take the more serious incidents to Stephanie, but once Cassandra tells her side of the story, it is always spun back on me so there’s no point.

Thankfully, Cassandra has been working from home more and more frequently, and the addition of new staff means she’s on good behavior to impress them, so it’s tolerable to work with her for now. But I still don’t wish to socialize with her outside of work. If I am in the supermarket, I can (and do) turn and walk away to avoid interaction, but there are some activities that I avoid so I don’t have to see her, and I don’t want to avoid them anymore. She will beeline to say hello to me in these situations because if I don’t engage, if makes her look like the victim to others present.

Is it reasonable to have a conversation where I basically say, “I have to put up with your bullshit at work, but I don’t have to tolerate you here, please pretend I do not exist outside of the office”? And how do I say it in a way that I can defend when it inevitably gets back to Stephanie?

No, not really, at least not if you don’t want any blowback.

The thing is, you’re expected to maintain generally civil relationships with colleagues — even when you encounter them outside of work. That doesn’t mean you need to socialize with Cassandra, but it does mean that if you say something openly hostile to her outside of work, your employer would have legitimate concerns about how you manage your work relationships (just like if you sexually harassed someone outside of work, or flipped off a client in the park, or so forth). The ways you treat colleagues outside of work can be your employer’s business, because they care about the sorts of relationships you maintain with the people they expect you to work with. That’s always true, but it goes double since Stephanie is likely to believe you’re the one stirring up drama.

However, there are professionally appropriate ways to indicate you don’t want to engage socially with someone. You can be chilly to Cassandra as long as you’re not rude, and you can excuse yourself from conversations with her right away. I recommend Miss Manners’ map of the varying degrees of chilliness to employ with someone you loathe — which goes from Slightly Cool (“your mouth turns up when you have to say hello to her, but your eyes do not participate in the smile”) to Cold (“all the formalities, but no smile — you do not have a personal grievance against him; you are merely treating him as the sort of person you do not want to know”) to Freeze (“you do not greet him, you do not acknowledge his presence, and if he approaches you, you turn away”). Freeze is too much for a coworker; I recommend Slightly Cool. (If you prefer Cold, I’d only caution you to factor in how it will look to those around you, which matters more than what Cassandra thinks.)

Frankly, there’s real power in being meticulously professional, and it’s more likely to throw her off whatever game she’s playing than getting down in the mud with her will do.

But if none of that convinces you, consider that Cassandra sounds obnoxious and vindictive enough that she’s not likely to respect a “please pretend I do not exist outside of the office” request anyway. If she’s intentionally initiating contact when others are present so that she’ll look like the victim if you don’t engage, delivering that message will just give her more motivation to do that; you’d be essentially announcing that you’re likely to give her the reaction she’s hoping for.

{ 218 comments… read them below }

  1. Cobol*

    LW are you new to the small town? If not, ignore this. I’ve been working for a company based in a small town that I don’t live in, and I’ve learned it’s almost impossible to separate work and out of work.

    It’s a shame, because it’s incredibly toxic, and ultimately leads to a company that doesn’t provide the same level of service as a company in a city.

    1. CL*

      “New” can be relative. My parents were “new” in their small town until they had been there over a decade. And yes, you can’t separate stuff when you bump into everyone at the grocery store.

      1. Caramel & Cheddar*

        I grew up in a town where if your family’s last name doesn’t show up in the oldest of the town’s cemeteries, you’re still considered new!

        1. Brain the Brian*

          Whew, same here! In fact, my family was considered “new” because our mausoleum (first constructed in 1916) wasn’t in the oldest *section* of the oldest cemetery. Small towns are wacky, wacky places sometimes.

      2. Be Gneiss*

        I live somewhere that you are new if you weren’t born here. I once heard a coworker who was in her mid-40s explain “we moved here when I was 6 months old” because even that length of time was not long enough to say that she was “from” the small town.

        1. THE PANCREAS*

          Same! I’ve been here 14 years, my spouse is from here, I volunteer FOR EVERYTHING, my children are well embedded in the school district and yet…I’m still “new”

          1. MigraineMonth*

            Particularly for certain races…

            “Where do you come from?”
            “Dayton, Ohio.”
            “But where do you really come from?”

            1. Mel*

              Really? In Dayton.

              I grew up in Franklin which is horrible for that kind of thing, but Dayton’s so much bigger, I wouldn’t have thought it would still be an issue!

              1. Mel*

                Just realized that might have come off as me saying I don’t believe you – I believe you, it just surprised me.

            2. StraightOuttaDayton*

              I was thinking of Dayton reading this thread (I live in Dayton) hahaha! Just moved here two years ago and I think even if I stayed here the rest of my life (I’m not), I will be the “newbie”

              1. LabRat*

                Oh man, my family is from Shelby County (I grew up in Beavercreek, though) and there are people whose homes they refer to as “so-and-so’s place” – and so-and-so hasn’t lived there for 25 years. It’s wild.

                1. There You Are*

                  Ope. My next-door neighbors (both sides) and I still refer to the house across the street from me as “Gene Turner’s house” even though Gene died in 2005 or 2006.

                  But Gene bought the house when it was brand-new back in the early 1960’s and, after his death, his children turned it into a rental, which meant that the occupants changed every 6 to 24 months.

                  The guy that bought the house after Gene’s kids got tired of being landlords only lived there for 2.5 years — just long enough for his uber-wealthy father to deem him “An Adult Who Can Take Care of Things” and therefore release the rest of the trust fund to him.

                  The new couple who bought from Trust Fund Baby just moved in a month or so ago. Hopefully they stay for a long time but, until then, we all will still call it Gene Turner’s House.

                2. Kit*

                  Central PA here and my backyard abuts on a property I still know and refer to as “the FamilyName farm” even though the estate sale saw it subdivided almost a decade ago, and an actual FamilyName hadn’t lived in it for nearly a decade before that.

                  Not a whole lot of new folks move into town (which is a serious issue for another day, suffice it to say our population is aging pretty rapidly as kids move out) and so the locals have mostly all had the same points of reference for generations.

              2. SongbirdT*

                Oh hi, neighbors! Which Marion’s do you go to? :D

                I think that Dayton has been derided for so long that people who haven’t always lived here don’t want to say they’re from here. My husband is a California transplant, and has been here almost as long as he was there. I keep telling him he’s safe to consider himself a Buckeye now.

                1. TeaCoziesRUs*

                  This confuses me so much because Dayton is the home of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. I’ve definitely experienced the military version of college vs townies, but Dayton seems too large for that nonsense.

                  Then again, the insular attitude of both military and multi-generational hometown folks probably exacerbate any “go away, newbie” attitudes. >.<

          2. Paris Geller*

            Yeah. I’m “new” in my hometown, even though I was born there and both my parents had lived there at least a decade before I was born. But THEY weren’t born there, so still “new”.

        2. Username required*

          Lol small villages are a law unto themselves. I remember where I lived a villager saying an 85 year old woman wasn’t a local because she’d moved there when she was 6 months old.

        3. Ontariariario*

          The expression in the Atlantic provinces of Canada is CFA or Come From Away. It is the title for a musical and my impression is that the term is kinder in Newfoundland, whereas it is meant to ostracize newcomers in Nova Scotia and PEI. Someone is CFA and new to a small community if they weren’t born there and they don’t have any ancestors. “Who’s your mother, who’s your father?” My grandparents are from the community and when I return for family visits I’m going ‘home’ (their term, not mine). I’m thankful I don’t live there because they can be so strict in their attitudes. One of my family members got visibly stressed when we had a big family supper and, as per usual, after the meal the group split into two rooms based on gender and I went against convention and joined the other room.

          1. WoodswomanWrites*

            Your user name is making me smile. As soon as I read it, I immediately thought of my Detroit childhood, watching TV and seeing the promotional video for Ontario tourism. Even thought it’s been decades, I’m now recalling the melody of the theme song: On-tari-ari-ari-oh-OH. Amazing that my brain had that nugget stored somewhere.

          2. Shakti*

            My grandmother moved to a village in down east Maine and the phrase was From Away and people would say oh I’m not a local I’m From Away and had been living there over 30 years and raised their children and everything. She lived there full time for 11 years and was still considered brand new

        4. Llama Llama*

          My parents were from New York but moved 50+ years ago to the south. I was born and raised in the same town. I was not considered southern….

          1. OMG, Bees!*

            All of these comments are wild to me. I have family all over the US, but was the first (that I know of) born in California, and consider myself native Californian (obviously not Native American), since I have lived here all my life. But I’ve also lived in big cities where it seems like most people moved here after graduation.

        5. londonedit*

          We moved to the (small, British) village where I grew up when I was 6 years old, so when I started at the village primary school the other children in my year group had been there for a year already. Just one year. But I still have friends now who’ll say ‘Oh, yes – you joined much later, didn’t you’. It was one year of primary school!

      3. Cobol*

        I mean I’ve heard people call people new after living in the town for 20 years. I guess what I meant was does LW consider themselves new. I’ve known people who moved seamlessly from other small towns to the one my company is in, because the general approach to life is the same.

        1. CL*

          Good point. I said over a decade because that’s when I left and stopped having to care about who I bumped into at the grocery store. :)

      4. cardigarden*

        I have family who are still “new” in a place they’ve been since 1972. Small towns can be wild.

      5. TootsNYC*

        my parents were “new” in my small town for almost the entirety of the time they lived there.
        Which was funny, because as they were moving there, they discovered that my mom’s ancestors had helped to FOUND the town and one of the churches in the county. So we were related to alot of people, and our roots went further back.

        And, per Caramel & Cheddar’s comment on this particular thread, our family’s name DID appear on one of the most prominent graves in the main cemetery in the county, and was peppered all over the oldest (but now mostly abandoned) cemetery in the county.

        We were still newbies.

      6. Elsewhere1010*

        A friend of mine moved to Mississippi just over 30 years ago, and his neighbors now agree he’s not too bad for a Yankee.

      7. Princess Sparklepony*

        They got accepted after only a decade? That’s quite a progressive town. Often it takes a generation or two or three….

    2. Heffalump*

      There’s the joke about the man who moved from a major city to a small town in Vermont. One day years later, he was telling another man (who was born and raised there) that he felt he still wasn’t really accepted after all these years, and it annoyed him. He said, “At least my children are Vermonters–they were born here.”

      The native said, “If the cat has her kittens in the oven, they don’t come out muffins.”

    3. Dinwar*

      I grew up in a small town. There are costs and benefits.

      On the one hand, you’re right, there’s no real separation between “work” and “life”. Conversations about work tend to blend seamlessly with conversations about the kids’ soccer match and the latest gossip from the hardware store. And it’s really easy for a small town to become…cliquish, in ways that high school dramas on TV can’t copy because they wouldn’t be believable. Really sucks when the police are in one clique and you’re in another, opposing one.

      On the other, since you’re absolutely going to see these people over and over again, likely for the rest of your life, a certain amount of decorum needs to be maintained. Plus, you can get away with things that would NEVER fly in a city, which can really help a customer out. When you’re the sole proprietor “business hours” are whatever you decide, after all. And it’s really hard to treat a customer badly when that customer is also your cousin’s spouse and you’ll see them next weekend at Grandma’s place when you go over for doughnuts.

      Neither way of life is better or worse. It depends on personal preference.

    4. jackie*

      Reading these responses–OMG. The memories. I left my small town in 1979 when I graduated high school. 25 years later I’m driving the 2 1/2 hours to my parent’s house when 2o miles before I get there I’m stopped for speeding. I got a ticket. Arrived at my parents house and my dad insisted “we” had to fight this, and that the very next day we were going down to the magistrate’s office to get this settled, because my dad hunted deer with him, and let him use his property for the this guy and his friends to use during the season. I couldn’t talk him out of it.
      So the next day we go down to the municipal building to the magistrate’s office. We approach the counter to ask for a meeting. The person behind the counter is someone I went to high school with in the mid 70’s – and she says “Does this have anything to do with the speeding ticket you got yesterday?” (I can’t make this sh*t up.) I nodded yes, and we go in his office, and my dad pleads my case so I don’t get points. The result was that I would have to return sometime in the future to fight it there in court. Um, doesn’t work with my ability to abruptly get time off. So then they talk about deer hunting.

      That’s a small town, and the letter writer has a tough situation because C will sense the indifference from her and make a point to capitalize on it when they are in the same space. C will zero in on oportunities to work to her advantage as a victim. Best bet is avoidance if possible. Mean girls have long memories even if the recollections are distorted by time.

  2. Chairman of the Bored*

    In the absence of a serious abuse situation (which doesn’t seem to be the case here) if I heard that a colleague told somebody at work any variation of “please pretend I do not exist outside of the office” I would conclude that the person making that request was unrealistic and weird, and I’d also want to have as little to do with them as possible.

    Cassandra sounds exhausting, but I don’t think asking her to pretend you’re invisible is going to change much.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      I’m pretty sure Cassandra will do the best she can to make you miserable anyway, but especially if you do anything against her, like you already did. She’s not going to respect your wishes, after all.

    2. JSPA*

      Yup. Same for mean girls at school and frenemies; placidly gray rock them. Son’t feed the drama.

      If someone comes up to you and is being, to all outside eyes, volubly pleasant, only for you to shut them down or cut them dead? That WILL make you the clear drama lama / clearly problematic person in everyone else’s eyes.

      Furthermore, they’ll be somewhat right, at least to the limited extent that you indeed are not bothering to regulate your social veneer.

      This doesn’t mean you have to put up with someone who’s been abusive to you or to yours, to the point of physical damage or actual trauma. (Heck, even if it was truly an accident; if someone ran over your dog, you can be “not ready to socialize” for the next decade or two.)

      But tossing stuff on your desk carelessly, or being curt with you at work, or letting others know they find you a bit difficult? Nope. That’s a PITA, not trauma. Coworkers are allowed to not like you much, and you’re allowed to not like them much, but especially in a small town, you still spend a moment or two passing the time of day, when your paths cross, outside of work.

      Consider the time spent not as a gift to your coworker, but a gift to the social fabric of your town. And also, time well-spent, burnishing your own, “easy to get along with” credentials. (Even if it does feel like you ought to get paid at least half-day SAG-AFTRA rates for the acting job.)

    3. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      If I worked there, experienced both Stephanie and Cassandra first hand, I would think, upon hearing OP’s request, “aww, you let the bastards get you down.” The only way to survive a completely unprofessional organization is to be completely professional.
      She makes a comment to the peanut gallery that you didn’t bring her coffee, you ignore it. She makes the comment to you, you reply, “oh, sorry,” and go back to work. She throws papers at you, pick them up and put them in a folder.
      She can’t win if you don’t play.
      You will lose if you try.

      1. too many dogs*

        Exactly. When she can’t get a rise out of you, she will either give up, or increase her hostility, which WILL get noticed. She will look even more conniving and mean, and you will look like the complete professional. You win.

        1. Pajamas on Bananas*

          This. I had Stephanie and Cassandra. When my Stephanie finally realized who Cassandra really was she helped me move onto bigger better things. She was impressed with how well I handled the situation.

      2. Federal Worker Drone*

        This. Treat her as a misbehaving toddler who gets no reaction for her bad behavior and only ever rewarded for good behavior.

        Toddlers throw things. It’s obnoxious, but that’s how they are until they learn self-regulation—and she’s not YOUR toddler so you aren’t the poor schlub who has to teach her. Pick up the stuff and pity the one who will one day face the music.

        Toddlers also make utterly unreasonable demands (“You didn’t buy ME something on YOUR break!!!!”) if you must reply at all, reply with, “you’re right. I didn’t.” No apologiy, no further explanation.

        It’s still kind of obnoxious to work with a toddler, but it can help you manage your own expectations of her.

        1. pope suburban*

          This is, hand to God, how I got the CEO’s horrible pet employee to stop verbally abusing me at the hellmouth job. He had some kind of dysfunction that led him to desperately need emotional reactions from the people around him- specifically, negative emotional reactions. He liked making people cry or become anxious. I, in my turn, liked not giving the miserable sod anything he wanted in life. I accomplished this by watching a lot of Supernanny and pretending he was literally five years old. When a five year-old has a tantrum, you don’t get actually mad at them. You don’t fight back. You stay calm and you wait for them to get tired out. I did this. He hated it. He lasted three weeks before never doing it to me again. I tipped off the designers and the office manager, but they never could seem to stick to it and so he unfortunately continued to terrorize them. I wouldn’t say he was ever polite to me, but he wouldn’t ever try to cross me directly on the rare occasions that I had to openly contradict him, which was a nice if unexpected benefit.

      3. Someone else*

        Yes. I have previously survived working with a bully who made everyone miserable by being relentlessly cheerful. It wasn’t by any means a fun situation, but it gave me back a small amount of power just to refuse to acknowledge how aweful she was being, and I think it annoyed her that she never got a rise out of me.

        1. Zelda*

          Speaking of Miss Manners, her take on the people who claim that formal etiquette rules are stupid and all society needs is an intention to make everyone comfortable goes something like this: You are meeting your spouse’s jealous ex-spouse for the first time. Which will make the ex happy: if you are nasty or snarky, refuse to shake hands, make a big deal about keeping your spouse away from the ex, and generally act very threatened? or if you are warm, gracious, and impeccably polite? Being above criticism in front of an audience can be extremely frustrating for one’s would-be critics.

        2. StarTrek Nutcase*

          I learned when dealing with a high school bully that being cheerful & finding humor in their behavior will absolutely drive them bonkers while appearing to others as though you are trying to take the high road. (She got expelled after losing it one day on the bus after I simply uncontrollably laughed at her nastiness.)

          SO, when I came across a work bully (her MO with many), I displayed only cheerful amusement. Drove her to higher & higher heights until the bosses couldn’t pretend her behavior wasn’t outrageous. (Mine was considered exceedingly tolerant.) She went on a PIP and eventually resigned (in lieu of firing). Moral: play smarter and let bullies defeat themselves.

  3. mb*

    A very flat “it’s nice to see you, excuse me, I see someone I need to speak with (or I need to use the restroom)” is more than adequate – she might think you have a bladder problem but who cares? I would also recommend that when you request information from her to do your job, you do so in an email. This way, if she doesn’t provide it or takes a long time to send it to you, there is documentation of her behaviour. The rest of her behaviour should just be completely ignored. If she sees that she doesn’t get a rise out of you and that you don’t care about what she’s doing, she’ll move on to the next victim.

    1. H3llifIknow*

      I’d definitely cut the “it’s very nice to see you” and go straight to “excuse me….” Perhaps begin with “Hello, and excuse me…” to give some appearance of civility, but I won’t say “it’s nice to see you” to someone that it’s…not nice to see!

      1. Totally Minnie*

        When I worked in customer service, I joked that sometimes when I said “have a nice day!” to customers, I was lying through my teeth because I was not allowed to say “have the day you deserve!” Sometimes, a polite white lie is necessary in the workplace, and I don’t count those as lies so much as the script we all sometimes have to play to when we are actors playing the roles of our work selves.

        1. Miss Muffet*

          This is it – these things are a script. In the same way that “how are you” is not usually ACTUALLY asking. The correct script follows with “fine, you? And that’s it. We’d get a lot farther if we didn’t worry so much about authenticity/truth in these kinds of basic interactions.

        2. sunshine_and_rainbows*

          This is so real. Sometimes I just act super friendly to people I can’t stand because if I know it’s complete BS coming from my end, that makes it not real and in turn, subversive enough for me to stomach it.

        3. MJT*

          I end every email to a less than pleasant “client” with “Thanks, and have a great day!” which is my own secret code for the exact opposite sentiment.

      2. Kevin Sours*

        There is an art to voicing the socially correct response (“it’s nice to see you”) with the warmth usually associated with Nifilheim that makes it more effective than the the mere terse approach.

        1. I Have RBF*

          … with the warmth usually associated with Nifilheim…


          Yeah, don’t waste a cut major on the woman. Just be coolly polite, like she was yet another customer on a busy day. Professionally grey rock, somewhat preoccupied, is the tone you want. Not offensive, not effusive. You are acknowledging her existence, making polite noises, then moving on.

          I have worked with people I despised, or thought were complete idiots, and I still was unfailingly polite to them. Hell, when I encountered my ex-boss, who screwed me out of a job, at a grocery store I was still polite and courteous. What I really wanted to do was turn around and fart loudly in his direction, but I just politely greeted him and his spouse and made small talk.

          Never tip your hand to the office bully.

          1. Quill*

            The only time you can actually tell someone that their mother was a hamster and their father smelt of elderberries is when you have a castle wall between you and them.

      3. mb*

        I know what you’re saying – but using “it’s very nice to see you” makes her sound friendly and polite to the people around them and prevents Cassandra from claiming that op is “mean” or claiming vicitimhood. It’s a social nicety that we use and usually don’t mean.

      4. Clare*

        For those with a personal rule against phatic expressions that aren’t literally true, sometimes I find mentally reworking the meaning of the phrase helps. If you internally decide that “Nice to see you” means “I’m happy that I have good enough vision to see people and I’m choosing to declare it right now”, then you’re not lying.

        To slightly misquote Gandalf “What do you mean when you say ‘Good morning’?”

        1. Mystery Mongoose*

          Yes – think of it like spotting an enemy. “It’s nice to see you instead of having to worry about being ambushed around the next corner”

        2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

          I was about to say the same thing! Good to see you (instead of having you sneak up behind me). It’s nice to see you (so I can prepare myself for any nonsense).

    2. Emily*

      I completely agree. Do any work interactions you have to do with Cassandra in writing when at all possible. For out of work interactions, follow Alison’s advice. Unfortunately, telling her not to talk to you is just going to feed into what she wants. Don’t give her the that power.

    3. LCH*

      yes, definitely use email when making requests. but be really nice in them so there is no written record showing otherwise.

    4. ferrina*

      This. It’s not your fault if every time you see Cassandra, it just so happens to coincide with you
      being very busy/about to leave and need to get somewhere immediately/about to call your mother/needing to get home to your vomiting pet/in the middle of cataloguing your recent alien abduction.

    5. TootsNYC*

      Another good phrase: “Oh, hello Cassandra. Excuse me, I’m here with my friends.” or “with my family.”
      or “I’m taking a break from work chat.”
      and “I’m sure you understand.”
      And then walk away.

      Those phrases all say:
      -you are not my friend
      -you are not my family
      -I only talk to you about work

      1. Shirley Keeldar*

        Agreed, and I think you also might get some mileage out of, “Oh, I use this time to decompress from work, so no work talk, okay? Thanks, I knew you’d understand!” Sunny smile, genuine appreciation in your voice. It’ll drive her nuts.

        1. Bird Lady*

          This. Right. Here. When I used to work for a local non-profit in a small town, people would constantly try to engage me about work while I was out with family, friends, or even just trying to run a few simple errands. I’d always give a warm smile, say how nice it is to see [insert person], but that I was using the time to decompress from work or celebrate a family milestone. I’d offer to call them during business hours, or give them my card. No one ever took me up on a follow up call. It was more a matter of I was there, then any substantive feedback or collaboration.

    6. Momma Bear*

      I grew up in a small town. I would do this – very minimal engagement. And/or get another friend to pull you away when they see her coming/trapping you. Gray rock her. Make yourself uninteresting outside the office.

      And CYA, always. Emails can be your best friend, especially if you need historic reference.

    7. too many dogs*

      I agree on the emails. With somebody this sneaky, “mb” is correct — you need as much documentation as you can get.

    8. Kevin Sours*

      The thing is the excuse should be delivered with correctness, civility, and conviction. Plausibility is entirely optional. In fact, using a clearly fictitious excuse is it’s own level of message.

    9. STG*

      I smile, give a quick wave/hi and then just keep right on walking by. Brief social acknowledgement and back into whatever it is that I’m doing. I don’t really give them a chance to engage much.

  4. starsaphire*

    Yep, smile slightly and nod, and go about your business, or say “Good morning, Cassandra,” and keep moving along. Cordial but not friendly.

    Old movies have great ways of modeling this – like, Bette Davis era movies – where you’re friendly-polite to one person at a gathering and cold-polite to the next.

    If it’s a class or something, though… finding another class so you don’t end up stuck with Cassandra as your workout/practice partner would be the best bet. Because even if she did end up getting fired some day, she’d still be going to that class.

    1. Antilles*

      Absolutely. The biggest key to this method is the “keep moving along” part.
      If you’re walking in the park, you say hello as you’re walking without really slowing down or breaking stride. If you’re at the grocery store, you greet her, then keep right on shopping. If you’re at a party, you greet her, then go to refill your drink or chat with someone else. Etc.

      1. WS*

        +1, I live in a small town and had to deal with someone seeing someone who repeatedly verbally abused me (after I stopped him sexually harassing my younger co-workers). I would say “Good morning” in a loud, cheerful voice and never stop moving.

      2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        Came here to say this. I think I picked up this strategy from (I think) George Clooney (from a video of an interview, not personally, LOL). It’s how he manages to not get bogged down when in crowds. Smile, say nice things, shake hands, but never stop moving. Haven’t had much opportunity to try it out, but he did a demonstration and it looked pretty effective.

  5. Nesprin*

    This sounds like an opportunity for the gray rock method- you are going to be as boring as the boring-est gray-est rock in any and all interactions. If she asks what you’re up to this weekend, you’re going to be doing laundry. If she asks about your TV watching it’s going to be cspan.

    1. Impending Heat Dome*

      It can also help your case when you’re the one acting completely normal, and she’s the one throwing papers and making coffee demands. Assuming she does those things around witnesses, which she may not.

  6. Alan*

    Sometimes I have to remind myself that people like this often have an entire lifetime of learning to be jerks, and I’m no more likely to compete with them at being at jerk than I am to out-cello Yoyo Ma after 5 lessons. You can’t lose if you don’t play. Being professional but detached, although sometimes difficult to do, is the way to go.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        I am always the one saying hi to people in the hall, good morning that crap. It was so liberating to realize that some people just wanted someone to put down and I WAS VOLUNTEERING!
        Once I stopped bothering to “acknowledge you, other human” and stick with “hey, I have this for you.” or “Hey, do you have the TPS report?” I was liberated.
        The world didn’t end.
        They were still crap people talking crap on people, even me, but I stopped giving a damn.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      Oh my gosh. I wrote the same thing!
      She’s like Michael Keaton in Pacific Heights “this is how I make a living!”
      OP will never win because the goal post will change with the whims of this loon. “You didn’t get me coffee.” “You always bring me coffee in the afternoon, and I’m up all night.”

      1. goddessoftransitory*

        THIS. She needs to complain and there is no way to find the magic “nothing to complain about” door.

    2. Smithy*


      To this point of people who are jerks to those who “don’t matter” and nice to those who “do matter” – that is also a skill they are practiced at. And if I’m someone who usually treats all people with respect, treating them one way at work and then another way outside of work to be far harder than treating them the same at all times.

      So if that 100% treatment is “I’m professionally polite to you, and interact when I need to for work” – then in the grocery store, it can be the smile nod, and if any conversation is attempted “excuse me, I need to run/join my party/go to the toilet/etc”. If it’s an exercise class, and she opts to put her yoga mat next to you or take the spin bike next to you – remember that it’s really common to not talk during exercise class. And if she tries to, again politely apologize but say you need to focus on the instructor or you’re counting your breathing. The fantasy of the outburst is one thing, but it genuinely will just open a lot more grief.

      1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        Wanted to highlight your last sentence. It’s fun to imagine taking her down a peg or two, like in the movies. Your co-workers applaud, the music soars. Cassandra quits and moves away, never to be seen again, and everyone is happy. But it’s highly unlikely things will go down that way. The best strategy is to be polite, but cool. As other commenters have said, the only way to win Cassandra’s game is to refuse to play.

        If you need any encouragement to keep to being friendly, know it’s probably going to seriously piss her off.

    3. AnotherLibrarian*

      Yes, detached professionalism is such a liberating way to be when you’re dealing with jerks. Learning not to play is a hard won, but really useful lesson.

  7. Rebecca*

    The best way to handle someone like this is to simply give noncommittal, bored but polite responses. “Indeed” with a slight nod is my favorite; it shuts down a conversation rather quickly. You’re not agreeing, you’re not disagreeing, you’re not being rude. You’re just acknowledging what she says and not continuing the conversation.

    1. Shirley Keeldar*

      I kind of love this.

      Cassandra: You didn’t get me coffee!
      You: Indeed. (nods sagely)

      Cassandra: You are always so rude!
      You: Indeed. (gazes off into distance, nods sagely)

      Cassandra: You used the serial comma in this report! I’m telling!
      You: Indeed. (tilts head, nods sagely)

      1. Rebecca*

        People like Cassandra usually just want a reaction, in my experience. Not giving them that reaction will make you an unappealing target. You can’t throw a hard boundary and refuse to speak when it’s a coworker, so it’s become my go-to when I need to escape conversation or avoid engaging with someone that’s rude. It usually works.

      2. Walk on the Left Side*

        My brain 100% inserted Spock into this dialogue as “You”.

        Channel your inner Vulcan. Give the mechanical, formulaic “correct” response, and move on.

      3. My cat is the employee of the month*

        My terrible teenage job involved having way too much responsibility at a local amusement park. I found this was the best way to handle irate customers. That, or to just overload them with kindness and understanding. “I know, it’s terrible when it rains! Can you believe it?? Here, let me have someone walk you to customer service so you can talk to them about rainchecks!”

    2. Stormfly*

      Oh, I love ‘Indeed’! It’s my favourite response when I don’t really agree with what someone is saying, but I don’t want to make a thing about it. My mum rants a lot and can be pretty judgmental, though I definitely wouldn’t call her toxic, and I use it a lot with her when I don’t want to seem like I’m being rude or too overtly humouring her.

    3. JSPA*

      Detatched with the vaguest surprise at learning something, and mild assent / inarguable statement of fact, also works.

      “no coffee!” “Oh… Yeah.”

      [tosses reports] “Oh. Reports? Got it.”

      [in grocery] “Oh. [pause] Guess we are both shopping. For food. [pause] In the grocery. [pause] Guess that makes sense. [pause] That we’d both be shopping, I mean. [pause] Here. [pause]. See you at work, right?”

  8. kiki*

    I lived in a small town for a while and I think the most important skill I developed is the ability to be polite and upbeat while saying absolutely nothing of interest or value. When Cassandra beelines across the Zumba studio towards you and asks how your weekend was, you smile and say “good.” Smile blankly to the void for a second, then enthusiastically say, “well, gotta stretch!” and then start doing that.

    If Cassandra is as manipulative as you say, saying that you don’t want to talk to her outside of work will only arm her with evidence that she’ll use to accuse you of being rude to her. Being polite and cheerful but uninteresting and hard to talk to isn’t something she can really complain about.

    1. The New Wanderer*

      I agree with this completely. It’s like saying “yes is a complete sentence.” You’re not “yes-and”ing to encourage the conversation, and you’re not (obviously) frosty to her or giving clear don’t-talk-to-me signals.

      “Polite and cheerful but uninteresting and hard to talk to” is a great description.

      1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        I’m having flashbacks to terrible dates when I tried *so hard* to keep conversation going when the dude answered like this. So yeah, this strategy is likely to be pretty effective.

        (I’ve since gotten much less willing to put in 90% of the work to keep a conversation fun; I’ll do my part and I’m not going to judge someone in a stressful situation, but I’m not going to exhaust my introvert self to avoid you feeling awkward).

    2. Blythe*

      “How was your weekend?”
      “What have you been up to?”
      “Nothing much.”
      Repeat as necessary, as boring as you can possibly be.

    3. Totally Minnie*

      If Cassandra is as manipulative as you say, saying that you don’t want to talk to her outside of work will only arm her with evidence that she’ll use to accuse you of being rude to her.

      This is exactly what I came here to say. If OP gives Cassandra a speech like the one she’s laid out in the letter, that’s a gift to Cassandra, and Cassandra is going to milk it for all she’s worth. She will tell EVERYONE she and OP know in common about the rude and hurtful thing OP said to her when she was just trying to be friendly. It will cause a backfire of epic proportions.

      I agree with kiki that just being vaguely pleasant yet distant is a much better way to go.

    4. RagingADHD*

      This is a valuable life skill in any size town and I’m surprised that more people don’t seem to know it. Everywhere you go, you will encounter jerks that you don’t want to be friendly with, but in order to live in a civil society we have to be…you know, civil.

      You can be generally pleasant without being somebody’s BFF, or their punching bag.

      1. kiki*

        I do think it’s valuable in any size city and it’s certainly valuable for work, but I think I honed the skill most when I lived in a small town. In a bigger city, day-to-day, I can get away without running into somebody I know. When I lived in a small town, if I was leaving the house, I was definitely going to run into somebody I knew. And there was definitely the expectation that I’d chat with everyone I knew, even if I secretly despised that person. Because the town was so small, I couldn’t afford to have real enemies or animosity. So I had to get really good at being pleasant but boring.

        But I agree, it’s definitely valuable no matter where you live.

  9. Eldritch Office Worker*

    This was a good reminder on keeping my cool with a colleague I’m at BEC stage with.

    It’s tough, OP. I feel you.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        I’m so lucky that my BEC is retiring at the end of the year because I’m definitely at the end of my rope with her.

  10. Hiring Mgr*

    Your coworker sounds awful, but also regardless of how good she is at fooling people, if she’s the common denominator in all of these workplace conflicts…well Stephanie needs to wake up

    1. Emily*

      Yeah, Stephanie is actually the real problem here (I know that’s cold comfort to OP, but perhaps it will make dealing with Cassandra slightly easier. Also, when people are as manipulative/unpleasant as Cassandra, I remind myself how horrible and exhausting it must be being them, because only someone deeply troubled would treat other people that way).

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        Yes, her only “work friend” is Stephanie and while I do not advocate “bringing your whole self to work” Cassandra has to bring the “I’m the victim” self 24/7.
        It can’t be fun. Even if you have a success, it has to be tempered with, “in spite of everyone else” which highlights people don’t want to work with her.

    2. OrangeCup*

      Dealing with this myself at work. Our horrible, incompetent manager will twist herself into pretzel knots on a daily basis to find any reason why every conflict our Missing Stair in the department has with everyone in the department is always everyone else’s fault, and never Missing Stair’s fault. Except it’s always her fault. And upper management doesn’t care either. In cases like this, finding a new job is often the only answer, as tough as that answer is.

    3. Ally McBeal*

      Yeah – Cassandra is the symptom but Stephanie is the problem. When/if Cassandra leaves, there’s a reasonable chance you could get Cassandra 2.0 in her place. Unless, of course, Stephanie gave Cassandra the job because they knew each other from previous jobs or even as friends… in which case Stephanie is still the problem but the Cassandra issue might be a one-off.

  11. Heart&Vine*

    Just came to say, Stephanie is really shooting herself in the foot here. I understand CEOs wanting to be involved in the goings-on of the office but, if you haven’t been trained properly, you shouldn’t be trying to do the job of an HR rep. “X couldn’t possibly have done something like that!” is never an acceptable response to a formal complaint (let alone several formal complaints), whether it’s about sexual harassment, embezzlement, or using the wrong client code on the copier. She’s going to lose good employees if she can’t start being more diplomatic or, even better, let employees report to the HR rep directly so they can assess the situation and report back to her with their recommendation on how to proceed.

    1. Emily*

      While I completely agree that Stephanie should not be doing HR, unfortunately in a small town she may indeed be able to get away with it because it is likely that employment opportunities are limited and it is not always feasible for people to move away for more opportunities.

    2. Mary Ellen*

      It doesn’t sound to me like this organization is big enough to need a FT HR person. (Correct me if I’m wrong, OP.) And even if they had one, managing this kind of interpersonal conflict wouldn’t be HR’s responsibility. The consultant’s job is presumably more strategic — and even if they were willing to get involved, it would get very expensive to have them mediate this kind of back and forth.

  12. LCH*

    i think i would go the more “kill her with kindness” along with gray rock route. be very cordial, but super boring. no behavior that could be pointed at as you being the bad person in this, but also be so boring that she doesn’t want to interact with you anyway.

    1. LCH*

      maybe instead of saying “it’s nice to see you,” use a more truthful statement. “hi, beautiful day today! gotta run to the restroom.” “hi, this is a great class, isn’t it? gotta stretch.” “wow, the bananas here sure are fresh! see you at work.”


      I generally take this approach but I did see a social media post the other day that was like “‘Kill them with kindness’ Wrong. Rat attack” and honestly it sounded like not a bad plan in some scenarios

    3. Ally McBeal*

      Agreed. I was once assigned to support a team and the head of that team, who was new to the company, decided shortly thereafter that he Did Not Like Me. He would ask my advice about how to achieve the success that heads of other teams had achieved (again, he was new!), then took what I said and ran to the CEO to complain that I was criticizing him and unfairly comparing him to other team leads. So I basically shut down emotionally with that team and funneled all that energy into my other team, which adored and valued me.

    4. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      Kill her with absolute politeness. When she speaks to OP, make eye contact and answer. When she throws things, pick them up and put them away.
      I do not advocate kindness, bringing coffee, inviting to lunch, asking about her weekend (yes, in a group, actively listen and comment if appropriate) but don’t seek out opportunities to be mistreated.

  13. i like hound dogs*

    I agree with others. If she says, “hey, how are you?” You cheerfully respond “Good!” while making eye contact. Do not ask how she is. It gets super awkward but she can’t accuse you of being rude and therefore you will feel satisfied in your microaggression against her (let the record reflect I do not usually advise on how to commit microaggressions, lol).

    It reminds of this woman who lives in my neighborhood. I do not like her for a variety of reasons, one of them being the following: I interviewed her as a potential childcare provider for my kid and decided to go with someone else. She started telling everyone that I didn’t hire her because her cat had killed a mouse in front of me during the interview (which did happen, but I … don’t care? I’ve had cats my whole life). I didn’t hire her because I saw a kid in her care drinking out of a puddle that her dog had pooped in and because she generally seemed to not be paying attention.

    ANYWAY, about the fifth time she confronted me in public with the “ohhhhh yeah, I remember when my cat killed a mouse in front of you and you totally freaked” I just smiled hugely and said, “that’s so weird, I don’t remember that at all.” She insisted it had happened and I shrugged and again repeated that I didn’t remember. She must have known I was lying but she never brought it up again.

      1. i like hound dogs*

        It’s hard to explain but my hippy-dippy neighborhood (which I love) has some weird social and political dynamics. People claim to love this lady because she lets the kids roll around in mud or whatever. So if you criticize her and her so-called earth-mother ways, you’re at risk of being accused of being an uptight gentrifier type.

        1. Boof*

          Gyah, i’d hope most even most hippy types would recognize the real and present danger actual fecal matter poses if ingested DX

          1. Charlotte Lucas*

            I know the type! I can be pretty crunchy granola, but I still remember the letter to the editor in my food co-op newsletter where someone asked if they would consider selling human urine for consumption!

            I love the crazy letters to the editor, but I don’t want some of these people taking care of children.

            1. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

              Oh my gosh. That just reminded me of when I went to a vegan raw bar years ago, to buy supplies for a 3-day raw diet/detox prior to my hysterectomy (fondly aka yeeterus). I wanted to get my inflammation down before the surgery.

              I mentioned that to the guy making the food and juice and he told me about drinking urine. Somehow that was going to help my fibroids (?). I was genuinely fascinated if slightly grossed out so I asked a lot of questions but he never could describe the supposed mechanism of action.

              I never knew that drinking urine was a “health” thing that some people pushed. Apparently the thinking is that some nutrients and hormones can be recycled? Completely missing the point that there’s a reason they’re being excreted, plus all the other risk factors for bacteria. I definitely went down a google rabbit hole afterward while wondering if the NSA was going to judge my searches. I also left there feeling mildly concerned and wondering if I should eat the food I had just bought.

              1. Bee*

                Some vitamins do pass through the body pretty much untouched if you’re consuming more than you need/can absorb, so theoretically someone else could be excreting something that their body didn’t need but your body does, but like. You can also get that in a handy pill form! Which doesn’t also come with the toxins that are also excreted in urine! Science!!

                1. goddessoftransitory*

                  I prefer my estrogen and other excreta distilled from cow urine form into handy birth control pills, but I guess I’m just divorced from nature.

                2. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

                  Predictability? Safety? Efficacy?

                  But where’s the fun in that? Much more interesting to play urine Russian roulette.

          1. i like hound dogs*

            Yeah, exactly. Another kid I knew got half the teeth in his mouth knocked out under her supervision. But people love her; I don’t get it!

            I have my own crunchy side but I am nowhere near the level of her (or the urine-drinking people. Gross!)

  14. Jules the 3rd*

    I went to ‘Extreme Professionalism’ at work but added ‘document document document’ to it. Out of work, I just ignore the person in my social group that I loathe. Maybe a nod in passing, but I am always on my way to chat with someone else.

  15. ferrina*

    I’m very unimpressed by Stephanie- does she really not notice how many people have approached her about Cassandra? At a certain point, even a well-intentioned person has enough complaints for you to say “look, I know you didn’t mean it, but this is seriously messing with productivity and I can’t waste my time cleaning up your (unintentional) messes with this frequency.”

    OP, have you tried counter-manipulation? Be ridiculously nice when you talk to Stephanie about Cassandra. “You know, I’m worried about Cassandra. She’s been very abrupt recently and almost threw a document at me the other day*. Is everything okay with her? I’m really worried.”
    *read: Cassandra yelled at you in the middle of the office and literally through a folder at you. But Stephanie won’t believe what you really tell her, so you water it down until she’ll accept it.

    Yes, it’s concern-trolling and any functional CEO would immediately tell you to get with it, but Stephanie has already shown that she is over-susceptible. At this point it’s almost rebalancing the deck. Any time you complain about Cassandra, do it from a place of “worry” or “helpfulness”. That way Stephanie gets to act in a way that “supports” Cassandra while also doing the thing she should have done the whole time. Of course, this tends to take a psychic toll, so give yourself a break by politely noping out of interactions when you can. Also use sparingly- at some point Cassandra will catch on and likely escalate. It’s really not a good option, but sometimes it’s the least bad option.

    (also, leaving would be a good option, but may not be a realistic option depending on how job opportunities are near you)

    1. NewJobNewGal*

      I like the counter-manipulation, I thinking of going the ‘kill with kindness’ route.
      ‘You didn’t get me coffee!’
      Uncomfortably loud: ‘Oh my goodness! I’m so sorry I forgot, I totally intended to! Do you need me to go get you one now? Or maybe I can get you lunch tomorrow? I feel just awful!’
      When OP sees her out in the wild, go overboard with saying high and prying into her business.
      Make Cassandra want the out.

    2. GingerApples*

      Yes. My toxic coworker Mathilda is a hoarder who has sex with our boss. I’ve started asking our grand boss about how our company promotes sexual health since people be ducking on the clock.

  16. ChemistryChick*

    Oof, I feel you OP. I used to work with a Cassandra up until a couple weeks ago and I’m eternally grateful our outside work circles don’t overlap.

    Also, though I think you know this already, Cassandra is a symptom of the main problem, which is Stephanie’s lording over of HR. If you’d rather not deal with any of this anymore and it’s feasibly, it’d be worth updating your resume and seeing what else is out there.

    1. Sara without an H*

      +1. Cassandra is a symptom, albeit an annoying one. Stephanie is the problem, and frankly, there’s no solution to that except finding another job. (I admit, this can be tough in a small town.)

  17. Nea*

    I’m curious in how this “don’t have permission to talk to anyone except Stephanie” works. Is that a rule according to the external consultant or a rule according to Stephanie?

    Because if Stephanie is the reason for the rule and Stephanie is ignoring Cassandra withholding work information, it’s time to gather up evidence of Cassandra interfering with the work process and talk to the external HR, permission or not.

    But you need that evidence, not just “She said, she said” because that’s how Cassandra gets away with it. I second the advice to ask for the information you need in email so there’s a paper trail.

    I also second the advice on giving Cassandra chilly-polite outside the office. If it helps, remind yourself that you’re not having to take more of her attitude, you’re keeping her defenses down while you gather up what you need to get her canned without Stephanie’s support.

    1. Insert Clever Name Here*

      We get this same type of thing (“I’m not allowed to talk to HR”) occasionally and I’m always interested in the logistics of it. Is Stephanie the only one with the contact info? Have you been told not to, so you don’t? Are you concerned that Stephanie will fire you if you email the HR person? I’m not doubting OP, this is just always curious to me!

      1. J!*

        If the person is an outside consultant paid by the hour, there are real financial consequences for any old random employee being able to contact them without letting someone in charge of the budget/contract know.

        It’s not a very good set up if it’s their only H.R. situation, but having one point of contact to funnel all questions to a consultant doesn’t seem particularly nefarious to me. Hell, having been an outside consultant it’s better for me when I get instructions and feedback from one person without having to manage competing or repetitive requests from a bunch of people.

    2. ferrina*

      External HR can’t really do much here. They are likely here to ensure compliance with legal protocols and maybe select projects, not interpersonal issues. And external HR will answer to the CEO, not the workers. Unless there’s an issue that could turn into a lawsuit, HR is likely to turn this right back over to the CEO (regardless of whether you have evidence). Being toxic isn’t illegal- it’s just really, really bad practice.

      This is a problem that starts and ends with Stephanie. No external consultant can save a company that won’t listen.
      An External Consultant

  18. UKDancer*

    Yes, I think polite and boring is the way to go. You can’t ignore her in public. Say hello and move on as quickly as possible.

    The only time I really wanted to ignore someone in public was when I bumped into a colleague in Anne Summers (it’s a lingerie and toy shop for those outside the UK). We looked at each other, smiled and said “hello” awkwardly and hastily moved away to opposite sides of the shop. We never spoke of this again in our time of working together.

    Otherwise, if you’re not in Anne Summers it’s harder to make an excuse for ignoring someone.

    1. Cafe au Lait*

      Ha! Fifteen years ago I worked at Kohls and the student employee lead (an intermediary between the boss and the other student employees) came in the shop. And proceeded to have me ring up her selection of panties.

      She had questionable judgement in other areas, and I was not sad to not be rehired the next year.

  19. DaniCalifornia*

    Have to wonder whether or not grey rocking in public would be useful here? Slightly cool but also slightly boring as well? Offering no information above the general anecdotes that two strangers would share if they randomly talked to each other at an event. Perhaps it could get Cassandra to back off even approaching you all together outside of work. Although she sounds…interesting.

    1. almost retired*

      Cassandra sounds like she is displaying narcissistic behaviour. Best approach is don’t give her the emotional response she craves. Grey rock, and be absolutely calm. she’ll give up and move onto someone else she can have drama with.

  20. Olive*

    Given that Cassandra beelines toward the LW, I suspect that grey rocking her would be taken as a challenge, and instead, I would brush up my acting skills and be performatively enthusiastic but frustratingly shallow.
    “Cassandra! It’s GREAT to see you, bless your heart. I’d looove to chat but I’m running late for pilates. Catch you soon!”

    1. Sara without an H*

      I once had a colleague who was a master of this art. It might help if LW could learn to be effusively warm and enthusiastic with Cassandra, while giving her absolutely no personal information. And it might eventually become entertaining.

      And Cassandra sounds like just the sort of person for whom the weaponized version of “Bless your heart!” was invented.

      1. Drowning in Spreadsheets*

        I lived in the south for a while. “Bless your heart” is a weapon similar to the stiletto and useful in many situations.

    2. jasmine*

      Gray rocking is usually taken as a challenge. The trick is to keep doing it until the other person gives up.

  21. Gerri’s Jaunty Hat*

    Yes OP, you come out the loser if you try to get squirrelly on her in public when she’s keeping her cool. Be polite, noncommittal, bland, uninterested, unbothered, and rinse your mind of her the second the interaction is done.

    This is one instance where the mentally healthy thing to do, the professional thing to do, and the high-status way to avoid losing face are all the same thing. You should take advantage of it.

    1. higheredadmin*

      Agree. Every second outside of work where you are thinking about her and/or changing your behaviour because of her is a win for Cassandra. It is very hard to get to a zen state with someone like this – because Cassandra is working her butt off to make sure everyone is paying attention to her all the time – but if you are not moving or changing jobs, this is the destination you need to get to. Eventually (and this is an indeterminate period of time) she will move onto someone who is giving her the payoff she craves.

  22. Zarniwoop*

    “The organization has an external HR consultant but most of us do not have permission to approach this consultant directly.”
    You’re not allowed to go to HR?
    That’s a very unusual policy (has anyone here ever heard of it before?) and it’s probably putting your employer in legal jeopardy.
    What if you want to complain about your boss?

    1. Despachito*

      This surprised me too.

      The only explanation I can think of is that as the consultant is external, she would probably charge the company a fee every time any employee approaches her, and the company wants to control this?
      Anything else seems weird as hell.

    2. NewJobNewGal*

      I was wondering about how an employee could report major issues. Sexual harassment, stealing, violence…what if there was a problem with Stephanie? I’m assuming that Stephanie is involved in cooking the books if she gives no way to report ethical violations.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This kind of external HR consultant usually deals with things like benefits, FMLA, advising organizational leaders on legal compliance, etc. — they’re not there to help resolve interpersonal issues. This can make a lot of sense for a small organization (you don’t usually need a dedicated HR person until you’re at about 50 employees) but then you do need someone internal who can handle things like harassment complaints, etc.

  23. Grits McGee*

    Slightly off-topic, but bow howdy am I nostalgic for the days when Miss Manners gave reasonable, helpful, and actionable advice.

    1. Lucy Valdon*

      Agreed. These days the column’s focus seems to be on delivering a zinger of some kind, rather than providing real guidance.

        1. Shenandoah*

          The linked article is from 2008 – the original Miss Manners’ children took over writing the article in 2013.

    2. Charlotte Lucas*

      Yes! I have some of her books from back when it was all Judith Martin. They have great advice and a lot of humor.

  24. Critical Rolls*

    OP, the thing to keep in mind is that people out in public have zero context for your interactions with Cassandra. They don’t know she’s a jerk, or that the boss won’t hear a bad word about her. If you did what you describe, and even one person witnessed it, all they would see is you blowing up at Cassandra. If Cassandra can spin her misdeeds that well, imagine what she could do with that.

    I know you want to be left alone, and more than that you want fairness, or some kind of balancing of the scales. But the behavior you’re contemplating is, at best, going to give you momentary spleen-venting relief before it blows up in your face. I’m sorry Stephanie sucks.

  25. Jam on Toast*

    Small towns are weird, and I second the advice to keep everyone on an information diet as much as possible, not just with Cassandra but when discussing Cassandra with anyone in the community, as well. My spouse comes from a rural family that has lived in and around a specific district for going on two centuries now. As someone who married in, I have found the community members’ expectation that everything anyone says or does, no matter how innocuous, very difficult to come to terms with. They know who got a new truck, whose marriage is rocky and who’s drinking too much, and exactly how much the shiny new Llama barn cost to erect, down to the interest rate the bank is charging. So even if you are superficially friendly with Cassandra herself when you bump into her in passing, just be sure that you maintain that same neutrality whenever someone mentions Cassandra to you, too. Because if you do tell someone in the community what you really think of Cassandra, no matter how justified your opinion, it will get back to Cassandra before you can say ‘gray rock’!

  26. Anonymouse617*

    I’ve done this with a colleague I could not stand, who asked me out several times and then tried to be friends with me even though I wasn’t interested. If we saw each other outside of work, I would do the pleasantries and very minimal small talk (“Can’t believe it’s been raining for three days straight!”).

    If they tried to bring up work, I would deflect with, “I try to keep a good work-life balance, and don’t discuss work outside of the office/business hours. Could you hold that thought and send me an email about it tomorrow?” If they tried to bring up social life/personal stuff I would say “Thanks for thinking of me, but I prefer not to discuss my personal life with my coworkers.” Usually, going in a loop like this either gives them the hint that you do not want to socialize, or they just get bored.

  27. Jinni*

    OP no advice, just sympathy. I’ve only lived in big cities and have run into someone (in a different context) maybe 10 times in my whole life. I’m exhausted just reading about Cassandra at work. I can’t imagine seeing her at yoga or spinning or one of my happy places.

  28. anywhere but here*

    I think it would be feasible to say something along the lines of, “I really prefer to keep my work life and outside of work life separate – otherwise I’m thinking about things like [project] when I really want to enjoy my time at the [gym/restaurant/other location]! Thank you for understanding.” Of course, that only works if you don’t really make small talk with other people outside of work.

  29. Jen*

    I’ve had a Cassandra in my life and I agree that Allison’s advice is spot on. That and, if you have a significant other/angry dog*, train them to divert you when Cassandra is nearby.

    *Not comparing my husband to an angry dog, but they can both distract you, with the dog growling! I have a well-trained husband in these situations. :)

  30. It's Marie - Not Maria*

    Lived in Small Town America and constantly ran into these types of folks in the community. I preferred to ignore their presence whenever possible. If I did end up in a situation where I had to acknowledge they existed outside of work, I was icily professional, looking through them rather than at them. Worked quite well. Also pissed many of them off, since I was not validating they were at the center of the universe, like they believed they were.

  31. Artemesia*

    What you want is the ‘cordial stranger’ — superficial greeting and niceness but a sort of air of ‘I think I met this person somewhere’ impersonality. You are gracious but then move on. Any overt freezing behavior just makes you look like the jerk. The goal is winning and winning is being blandly cordial.

  32. Burn the Snitch*

    I find the “mmm hmmm” response to a hello then walk away conveys the exact message you want to send here. Not openly hostile or rude, but definitely not friendly.

  33. Marty Jangles*

    Not at all practical (and probably not legal) but I’d be so tempted to set up a nanny cam situation at my desk to capture the paper throwing and snippy behavior just to have my back in case something happens.

  34. Antennaehead*

    As they say, you need to kill her with kindness. I bet if you’re effusive enough when you’re see her outside of work, she’ll stop approaching you

    1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

      Sometimes killing with kindness is cynically effective.

      “Love your enemies. It drives them nuts.”

  35. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    The way I handled jerks in the workplace, and over 50 years, I encountered quite a few….I followed the lead of Al Davis (1929-2011) – who was the General Manager of the Oakland Raiders in their glory years. He was known for having a team of misfits, who COULD WIN.

    His philosophy was = “You don’t have to take them home with you at night.”

    I followed that to a tee. The jerks? Disregarded after 4:30. I managed to divorce myself from them – emotionally, spiritually, all that crap. Hold your nose, walk out the door, because… I had a better personal life than all of the jerks.

    It worked. Very well. Yes, I’d love to publish my acquired “Dinner Table Stories” from my career – but – thinking now – I’m free of that garbage.

    It must be said – however, some of my former co-workers remained friends, and I see them in the outside world, even after retirement. As well as some of my customers.

  36. nnn*

    Has the visual appearance of the “you may also like” section on this site changed recently? Or is it just my browser?

    (I’m asking because I’ve been tweaking some browser settings to adjust the appearance of another website, and I’m wondering if I accidentally affected the appearance of all websites?)

  37. IHavetheBestJobEver!*

    Meticulously professional wins every time and it can be incredibly fun! It helps with emotional distance from the situation-the more you work it this way, the less the person affects you.

  38. Johannes Bols*

    To the LW’s Cassandra-esque dilemma, the way I would handle it is to do some role play. Do you have a friend or a spouse you can do this with? Give them a list of what Cassandra says to you outside of work. Then have them read them to you. In the role play, you just look at Cassandra in complete silence. Not a word. Just stare at her. DO NOT ENGAGE. It’s a safe bet she’ll bugger off. Let her complain to mgt. If there’s any blowback you can tell whomever it is you are not req’d to engage with employees outside of work and it’s your choice and it’s your time. If they wish to escalate this tell them that works both ways. This isn’t warm fuzzy advice. It’s a suggestion on how to not allow others to leech your goodwill and civil manners.

  39. Caroline*

    Now. I have a different approach to this whole ”you are the Worst and I do not wish to be friends at all, till the end of time” situation.

    It’s counter-intuitive, but hear me out. Be effusively pleasant. If contact is unavoidable and simply ”not seeing Cassandra down there at the bakery section” isn’t possible, then you are sweet to the point of nuttiness. So nice. Think of it as malicious compliance. Obviously do not ever let chit chat go into anything that might be construed as actual friendship, strictly surface level pleasantries, but be smarmy. It’ll annoy her and she will not be able to do a damn thing about it that doesn’t make her look ridiculous and bad.

    This will make her insane with impotent rage and that will be your reward. It may take a little while but trust me, they all crack in the end.

    1. metadata minion*

      Cosigned. If you can pull it off, the aura you want to emit is “cheery and gregarious but slightly-rushed customer service person”.

  40. What is even happening*

    I feel for you. This is tough but manageable through compartmentalisation. I don’t live in a small town, but have worked for many years in a situation where I work in another country with a small group of people AND it is those same colleagues who are responsible for my housing, school fees for my kids AND we live in the same small group of houses AND their kids are friends with my kids, they go to the same school AND I see them in the same social events, sometimes we even have some of the same friends AND we may even end up inadvertently at the same places for vacations. There are a LOT of layers and it can be exhausting. The way I have been able to get through this with most of my sanity is to compartmentalise :
    – at work, they are the annoying colleague and I fight my fights and down the sword at the end of the day
    – in the neighbourhood, I say hi and small talk about the plants etc,
    – at social events, say hi and focus on the other friends,
    – at school, say hi and focus on my kids
    – for playdates among the kids, I delegate my husband to deal with them because I cannot

    I see them as a different person in each context and I too am a different person in each context. I can’t change our circumstances, I just need to make it work: do my job well, be a good neighbour, be a good parent and well, the rest, just breathe slowly.

  41. Dasein9 (he/him)*

    OP, the advice you’re getting on how to be meticulously polite without being warm is really useful. It will come in handy a lot.

    For the internal side of this, to keep myself from taking my Cassandras seriously, I play a game in my mind: I’m an anthropologist studying the most fascinating person but also trying not to influence her behavior by engaging much. I describe her behaviors using my full vocabulary as though mentally composing field notes. This helps keep my emotions out of it.

    (What I mean by “full vocabulary” is, instead of just concluding “Cassandra’s a glassbowl,” I describe the behavior as “Cassandra seems to be regressing to childish behaviors designed to evoke a childish response. Since she directed them toward an adult, it was obviously unsuccessful.”)

    1. learnedthehardway*

      If you can muster an internal monologue in David Attenborough voice – it’s even more fun.

      “The common office irritant, subspecies Cassandra, displays chameleon qualities, initially appearing friendly and harmless, but ultimately revealing itself as a minor predator in its interactions. Today, we observe the Cassandra’s reaction to a perceived slight of not being brought a coffee. Note the ruffling of its tailfeathers and squawks for attention. The rest of the office pack pay it no attention, having observed that the Cassandra feeds on attention – somewhat like a vampire bat. Dismayed by the lack of reaction, the Cassandra retreats to its office cubicle to await another potential victim. No dinner for now….”

  42. SofiaDeo*

    #1, If you are leaving your work area and going to the other one for *no work related reason* just to chat, that a no-no. Justbecause you may be on a break does not allow you to interrupt others at work. The “having a bit of social interaction to forge relationships” should be more of an add-on few minutes when legitimately working with the others. Management won’t perceive this as being intrusive, and is actually a big reason behind the push to go back i to offices IMO. No one really lingers a few minutes to chat when on a Zoom call, but relationships get organically built when a bit of chit chat occurs as part of the work related interaction. But just showing up to chat on your break is not.if you’ve got a buddy, arrange to meet in the breakroom or other neutral area at an approximate time. Calling to ask “hey want to take a stretch break at 10:30? for 15 seconds is less intrusive/flies under the radar easier than leaving your area & showing up in theirs unnanounced when it’s not work related.

  43. Frango mints*

    I had a coworker who was volatile and a grievance collector. I tried to stay out of her orbit by giving her a vacuous smile, head tipped to one side, in the hopes she would get bored and go away.

    Once, she came over and asked if I had any antacid tablets. I told her no, but offered her Gas-Ex. She found this hilarious, and left me alone after that. I always secretly hoped it was fear of my mighty farts that kept her at bay.

  44. Meghan*

    I have a truly terrible coworker who loves, loves, loves to chat. If I run into her at all even at work or outside of work I just smile and nod. I basically employ the same conversation cues I’d give someone who I wanted to wrap it up. “Mmhmm, oh yeah.” “Yep, definitely”. “Oh wow.” “Okay well I’ve got to go (to the bathroom, get in line, get to my seat, etc.) so I’ll see you, bye!” She stopped coming over to talk to me. It’s great.

  45. Chris Hogg*

    I’ve heard it said that you should never get in a fight with a pig. Why? Because you’ll both get dirty, but the pig enjoys it.

Comments are closed.