I wonder if I can buy a gag in the company colours...
November 22, 2008 2:56 PM   Subscribe

Please help me find the most tactful way to deal with a coworker who never shuts up. Long ranty details follow.

I'll preface this by saying that usually, in this situation, I'd simply say something to the colleague in question, but that's already been tried.

Short version: A has some problems. She seems to think that the rest of us at my place of work (about 5 of us are regular staff, with some Saturday people as well) want to hear all about them. We don't. We really really don't. What can we say/do to make her shut up and stop treating us all like her therapist?

MUCH longer explanation: She comes from a strongly religious household, has a very controlling mother, has very few social skills (despite working in retail for the past 10 years) and has recently moved in with a boy. Her mother has quite predictably gone mad about this, especially since A has now formed a sexual* relationship with this guy.

*(They haven't actually had sex yet. She's hung some handcuffs on his bedroom door, but the most they've done is hold hands. Oh, and he kisses her on the cheek as he goes out to work.)

I've learned now not to say "alright?" when I see her at the start of my shift, because she will launch into a ten minute (as in actual ten minutes, not "feels like" ten minutes) harangue about the text messages her mother sent her last night, how many marshmallows her new beau put on her hot chocolate before bed last night and how stressed out she is about her brother's wedding.
I've learned not to make eye contact with her when it can possibly be avoided. I've learned not to ask her for help with customers, because she'll jabber on for a while about some random nonsense instead of helping either myself or the customer.
I've learned not to say "alright?" because I am not interested. At all. In the slightest. I was serving a customer at the till once, when she came to chat. When I moved onto the next customer, A moved around to the other side of the till and spoke to the back of the monitor for 15 minutes. At no point during this fifteen minute period did I acknowledge her in any way. She still kept talking.

What can I do to get her to stop talking to me? And by extension, what can all of us do to stop her talking to us about it?

I've tried offering advice. I've tried steering the conversation in a different direction. I've tried walking away but she follows me. I've spoken to our mutual supervisor about it, who spoke to A about the situation. A went missing for an hour and was found crying in the toilets. I'm running out of options here.

Lest anyone think I'm being callous, I am sympathetic. She's 26, having her first relationship ever with a guy she moved in with 2 months previously, and her mother does seem a little bonkers. I get that there is a lot of stuff going on in her life, and that she might feel overwhelmed about it. However, I am not close to this girl. I go to work to do a job and get paid. Greasing the wheel with a little social interaction is fine. Being turned into an emotional bucket for this girl's problems is not.

What can I do/say to this girl that wont cause a scene but will get her to shut the F up about her issues? Please give me some advice, because the Christmas meal is in a couple of weeks, and nobody wants to go, because A has put her name down on the list. This is a shame, because the rest of us get on quite well. It's just A.

I don't care what is wrong with her (if anything). I am not her friend, nor her gorram babysitter either. I also don't care about her problems. I just want her to go away so I can do my job in peace and quiet.

(Think this is too much info about something that you're not really interested in? Welcome to my world, 5 days a week. Pleas help me make it stop.)
posted by Solomon to Human Relations (27 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
What can I do/say to this girl that wont cause a scene

The problem is that her response is entirely out of your control. You could say the most reasonable thing in the kindest possible manner, and she might still create a scene. There's no magic combination of words and tone that can guarantee a different result if she's really as emotionally immature, socially clueless, and professionally inept as you've indicated.

You might just have to be very blunt. If she is nattering away at you while you're working, you might have to simply say, "I need you to go away so I can help this customer/finish inventory/count out the register. Thank you." Don't ask if that's all right, don't negotiate, don't apologize. Just say it in a neutral tone of voice that leaves no room for engagement. If she keeps talking, repeat. If she runs off crying, your supervisor will have to deal with it.

Speaking of which: go back to your supervisor, either individually or perhaps as a group. It is ultimately your supervisor's job to find a lasting solution, so that the group of you can get on with doing your jobs without being held hostage to a single person's constant disruptions and unprofessional behavior. (Incidentally, I can't imagine it's good for business when customers have to endure her babbling while you're trying to help them.)
posted by scody at 3:27 PM on November 22, 2008

Poor girl.

I don't have any general advice for avoiding chatty people, but in response to the "handcuffs on the door" question: Assemble your juiciest sex narratives and respond - enthusiastically! - at length with all the gory details. Had a nasty fight with your partner / spouse / parent? That's got to be worth at least five minutes of her time.

Maybe then she'll get the hint?

Usually when people want to talk to me and I don't (which, sadly, is pretty often) I just focus on doing whatever I'm doing. They usually figure out that I'm just working and don't want to be bothered -- and then they don't take it personally. If they do take it personally, I apologize profusely, tell them I'm eminently distractable -- some variation of "It's not you, it's me." And then I go back to work.

This seems to work pretty well.

As I type this, it sounds like I'm offering advice on a bad relationship. If only ALL office politics were more like dating!
posted by puckish at 3:29 PM on November 22, 2008

Whatever happened to: *sorry, but if it's ok with you, I'd rather not hear about this* ?

You can practice at home saying it till you're really good at it. After you say it to her face, you make a hasty exit and don't look back.
posted by watercarrier at 3:43 PM on November 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

See - this is the problem with being overly nice - you get shat on - so don't. Put down some rules - you're no body's sounding board and you don't appreciate being at the receiving end of someone's lovelife and heresay. Just put a huge invisible sign up that says: I AM NOT INTERESTED IN HEARING YOU TALK. As much as that would shatter all the politically correct/overly polite people's notions about what's *proper*.
posted by watercarrier at 3:47 PM on November 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

I think you must approach your supervisor(s) again, because if A and her ongoing litany of personal narrative are interfering with your ability to serve customers, she's become a business liability. If you have a specific example, that should be the jumping off point. "Listen, something happened on Wednesday and it's been bothering me, I was helping a customer and asked A to do X and instead, she just started talking about personal things, and interfered with my ability to help the customer, and it wasn't the first time. In fact, I've not asked her for help on occasions because of this..."
posted by Dreama at 3:49 PM on November 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well, at least you're not saying, like so many AskMes of this genre: "...so don't tell me to talk to her because we tried that once and it didn't work" or "I'll do anything as long as there's no possiblity of upsetting her in any way or impairing my self-image as a nice person."

You need to be repeatedly plainspoken and completely honest with her. Pretend you are talking with someone who is developmentally disabled. Being oblique or indirect is just going to add to her confusion and prolong your agony. The kindest, most effective approach is simple neutral statements that are completely direct, unambiguous, and clear. Don't let her get into full spate. "I need to work now. I can't listen to you talk any more. Please leave me alone now."

Don't ask if that's all right, don't negotiate, don't apologize. Just say it in a neutral tone of voice that leaves no room for engagement. If she keeps talking, repeat. If she runs off crying, your supervisor will have to deal with it.

This is right on.
posted by ottereroticist at 4:05 PM on November 22, 2008 [4 favorites]

Supervisor. Yes. Dreama is spot on. This shouldn't be your burden to deal with--particularly if you've already tried talking to her directly. This is what supervisors are for and why they get paid more than you. Talk to your supervisor, give specific examples, and make it clear that A's behavior is interfering with business.
posted by Meg_Murry at 4:06 PM on November 22, 2008

Sometimes you just have to be brutally honest.

You seem to be looking for a "nice" way to terminate the interminable ramblings of someone who does not understand "nice." There are lots of really pathetic people out there, who are so needy, so out-of-it, so divorced from the society of socially well-adjusted people, that they simply do not comprehend the normal social cues that would be glaringly obvious to most of us. Instead, she thinks you're "nice," because you're trying to be "nice," and this is interpreted as an invitation for her to share more of her life stories with you.

You're not going to like what I am about to suggest, but hear me out. Be brutally cold and honest with her. Don't try to sugar-coat it. Say, "Janet, I am not interested in these stories you keep telling me. [Keep a stern face while you say this.] I have tried to be nice about it, I have tried to hint to you, but you kept on cornering me with your stories, where you endlessly re-hash the little dramas of your life ad nauseam. [Now smile regretfully.] It hurts to have to tell you this, but from this point forward, I don't want to hear any more about your personal life."
posted by jayder at 4:13 PM on November 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

"jane, i'm sorry to hear about your difficulties, but you are distracting me from my work. please stop." if she doesn't, say, "jane, i'm sorry you are having a hard time with your personal life, but you are distracting me from my work. i don't want to get our supervisor involved, but i will have to if this continues." if she still doesn't stop, get the supervisor involved.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:26 PM on November 22, 2008 [5 favorites]

I was going to say "headphones" but if you're helping customers, that's not appropriate. What is appropriate is informing your supervisor that A is still impeding your efforts to help the customers. When you have to deal with the public, it's a different situation than if you just sit in a cube all day.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 4:41 PM on November 22, 2008

Best answer: According to Chekhov, you should ask to borrow some money from her every time she tries to make conversation, and after a while, she'll try to avoid you.

Just a morally gray suggestion...
posted by shamble at 5:01 PM on November 22, 2008 [20 favorites]

It's really up to her supervisor to deal with this. Yes, I notcied this:

I've spoken to our mutual supervisor about it, who spoke to A about the situation. A went missing for an hour and was found crying in the toilets. I'm running out of options here.

Speak to her supervisor again and say that problem hasn't improved and insist something be done. This girl probably needs help, and your supervisor probably should recommend that.
posted by orange swan at 5:29 PM on November 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

...you should ask to borrow some money from her every time she tries to make conversation...

I'd really think twice about doing this. She'll probably lend you the money (at least the first time or two), and then she'll see every opportunity to talk to you as something she's purchased the right to.
posted by Rykey at 5:33 PM on November 22, 2008

The other thing I'm going to offer, but don't know if it's appropriate or not - if you work in the type of place where there are any kind of written communications, you need to document this. Because she is going to have an impact on your work. You're not going to notice it, really, but she's going to make you distracted and irritated and that's going to carry over and cause you to not pay attention to something important some day.

"Dear Supervisor:

As we have previously discussed, I believe that A's personal conversations are going over the line of what is acceptible in a work environment. She continues these conversations when customers are around, which I do not believe is appropriate. I am doing everything in my power to not engage with A. and I do not participate in her conversations and wish to be left alone to focus on my work and serving customers. I understand you ahve spoken to her about this but I wish to document it in case issues should arise in future."
posted by micawber at 5:36 PM on November 22, 2008

I think if you give her a big speech she'll soon forget it and go back to talking endlessly at you.

How about a simple "Sorry, A, I can't talk right now"?
posted by Solon and Thanks at 6:14 PM on November 22, 2008

Ignore her.

Seriously. I don't mean sit there really disgusted at what an annoying dysfunctional human being she is... I mean enter a zen like state of completely blissful ignorance of her very existence.

My ability to completely tune out another human being as so astoundingly refined I can map out circuit boards in my mind, contemplate and process code snippets, and conduct entire fantastic rock operas without even noticing they are still existing (usually loudly) beside me.

This isn't to say that I make it a point to be an asshole to everyone I work with. I get along great with my coworkers. But every job you'll ever have will most likely have some completely unpleasant and emotionally demanding lunatic. Most of the time they don't even care if you hear them, they just want to hear themselves... so rather than argue with them, try to change them, alter their behavior, make them see how stupid they are behaving... I simply look at them, return to what I was doing, and occasional mutter a "Hmmm." while conducting my epic rock opera.

If you're not the kind of person that has that level of callous detachment... you're going to need to take some of the other advice that has already been shared about esculating the situation until she stops cornering you with her creep mommy issues and endearingly Victorian relationship with her live in eunuch.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 7:38 PM on November 22, 2008

With these people, the annoying thing isn't that they have long conversations. It's that they have long one-sided conversations. They talk at you, not with you, amirite?

You can't just sit there if you want her to stop. You have to interrupt. I like to try to make it comical and do the fingers in the ears "SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP LALALALALALAAAAA I AM NOT LISTENING LALALALA" thing, but you can't really do that first thing.

What you really should do first, is get some spare time, then set out to really give this person some attention in a conversation. Let her talk, but treat it as if she's come to you for help. Keep asking clarifying questions. Try to suggest solutions. Really focus some quality time on her, because in my experience, that's what these people need once in a while. They know lots of people who will give them half an ear all day, but nobody who will really give them some undivided attention ever. Once you've done that, it's much easier to say "uh, A, I don't have the attention span right now" or "You're driving me nuts today and I'm going to stab you if you speak again" or the "lalalalalaaaaa" thing without triggering a crying in the restroom episode.

You can then also say: Hey, A, I really like talking to you sometimes, but other times I really just want to daydream to myself and not be interrupted. If she thinks you mean that, it will probably work. If, like everyone else in her entire life, you just mean you want her to shut up like always, well, she's learned to ignore that.

Ultimately, though, the key is that it's your issue, not hers. It's not so much that she talks at you for so long, it's that you can't make her stop that's irritating you. Why do you need it to stop? Just think of it like a TV running in the background. Occasionally pay attention long enough to ask a related question. Make it a game to try to change the subject.

Alternate solution: Make a devious plot with your supervisor. Drop everything and start talking to her, then have the supervisor come in a few minutes later and threaten to fire you both if you two slackers keep wasting time jabbering instead of working. Every time she tries to strike up conversation after that, say "Shh! We'll get caught!" The day that supervisor is out sick, you're screwed.
posted by ctmf at 7:53 PM on November 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

IMHO this is definitely the supervisor's job to deal with, maybe you should go as a group with fellow employees to speak with him/her about the problem. Or if the supervisor isn't helpful, you can tell her clearly and firmly that she should stop, you don't want to hear about all this. Just prepare yourself ahead of time to not feel guilty about it, you shouldn't feel bad - you have the right to a decent work environment and to be left in peace.

I used to have a coworker like this. I just couldn't get her to stop talking, nobody could. I finally went to my boss about it, he did manage to get her to stop ordering me around and telling me I was wrong about everything, at least. She meant well, she simply didn't get that other people didn't want to listen to her talk for 45 minutes straight, and that I particularly preferred to have peace and quiet.

Finally, since you have an utterly intolerable coworker, if you then find out you have a pushover boss who won't do anything about it, well, you might have to get a new job. (I did.)
posted by citron at 8:44 PM on November 22, 2008

I'd agree with the many upthread who suggest being blunt. I've known, and worked, with people like this before, and it totally is true that they're talking to hear themselves talk, as they probably don't have anyone to honestly fill the category of 'friend', or at least not one who is willing to listen to their interminable complaints. Because they've got this need thing going on in their brains, they don't pick up on subtle, and even not-so-subtle, leave-me-alone signals ... partly because of the underdeveloped social skills, and partly because some little part of their brain probably understands that, if they acknowledge the other person's disinterest, they really have no other honourable option than discontinuing the constant babble, which they don't want to do.

Speak politely, but be blunt. You are not responsible for her feelings, or reactions, only for what you say. Tell her you're not interested in hearing her stories, that they make you uncomfortable, that they're not appropriate for a work relationship, that you have other things you need to be doing and thinking about. In short, make your feelings clear. Keep your vocabulary, your voice and your body language neutral--you're conveying some facts, not engaging in a personal attack. Don't patronise her by sugar-coating and saying that you wish you could listen, but you need to work; this muddies the water and gives the idea that what she's doing is okay. After that, if she decides to cry in the toilets or throw a tantrum or not speak to the rest of her co-workers, it's nobody's fault but hers.

Inform your supervisor that the problem is ongoing, and needs to be addressed. She needs to be informed, not only by co-workers but also a superior, that her behaviour is not appropriate in a work environment, and it's detrimental to the team. Depending on the vibe in your workplace, if you do choose to speak to her bluntly, perhaps inform your supervisor in advance so that there isn't a chance that it turns into her, accusing you of being mean.

And cultivate JFitzpatrick's skills of circuit boards and rock operas. That kind of thing is useful in all sorts of circumstances.
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 12:28 AM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Regardless of the talker's intent or level of social awareness, I consider this kind of behavior - flooding other people with uncensored, stream-of-consciousness mental chatter with no apparent regard for the listener's interest or other social cues - to be a form of passive aggression, and a highly corrosive one at that. If it is allowed to continue unchecked, the long term effects will not be pretty (as you're seeing already with the collective dread of encountering her at the holiday party). People like this might mean well, but they are capable of driving a wedge into even the most cohesive community or group, if no one is gutsy enough to take a stand and deal with it decisively.

She may not even realize it herself, but by monopolizing attention and then resorting to emotional manipulation and tears when someone calls her on it, she is covertly controlling others by taking advantage of their desire to be polite and friendly. She's probably lonely and desperate for attention in any form, and this is the only way she knows how to get it: to "steal" it wherever she can. In any case, things are not likely to improve if you focus on trying to change her behavior. In my experience, constant-talker habits are deeply ingrained and resistant to change. (There is someone in my family who is like this, so I feel your pain).

I hate to say it, but if you've tried everything you mentioned and your supervisor has already confronted her about this and failed to achieve the desired results, I'm afraid your remaining choices are few. If I were in your shoes, I'd do my best to tune her out completely whenever possible. I'd also explain to the supervisor once again that this is still a problem and something needs to be done pronto, because her behavior is interfering with business. In the end, though, it may come down to: either she goes (quits or gets fired), or you go (find another job).

On preview: What the luke parker fiasco said.
posted by velvet winter at 2:11 AM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you everybody for your responses, not least because all of them have given some helpful suggestions, and most of them have given me a damn good laugh, which is something that is sorely needed. I'm seriously thinking about sending my colleagues a link to this page.

I've gotten a few ideas now of things to try. I'd mark best answers, but they're all best, really. Though I do think that shamble has the absolute best answer, LOL!
posted by Solomon at 7:50 AM on November 23, 2008

One big kick in the ass that she needs to receive is that apparently she has these conversations in front of customers. I'd start with "Jane, I'm with a customer. You can't talk about this personal stuff in front of customers, and I need to pay attention to them." Your customers will thank you (not necessarily out loud, but mentally, they will thank you) since they were probably feeling damned uncomfortable about the whole thing.

That doesn't entirely solve your problem, since obviously there are times when you're not directly with a customer, but that's definitely the biggest issue I see. To be honest, I can't believe your supervisor hasn't had her fired for pulling this kind of crap in front of customers. Soooooo inappropriate.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:03 AM on November 23, 2008

Don't patronise her by sugar-coating and saying that you wish you could listen, but you need to work; this muddies the water and gives the idea that what she's doing is okay.

This is an excellent point. "I'm sorry about your home situation but I can't talk right now" will be interpreted by someone like your coworker as "I'm fascinated by your problems and I will listen to you later" -- thus merely deferring the babbling till the next time she catches you alone.

It goes against much of our social conditioning, but in cases like this, trying to soften the blow with "nice" language won't work; she's already demonstrated that she lacks both the social skills to perceive the underlying message and the self-awareness to behave appropriately in response.
posted by scody at 10:04 AM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just say "No offense, but I need to concentrate on my self and my work for a while and think it's best if I don't listen to your stories."
posted by xammerboy at 12:29 PM on November 23, 2008

A went missing for an hour and was found crying in the toilets.

Who went looking for her and why? If she's off her post for an hour she should get whatever discipline is coming to her from the employer. It's her responsibility to get herself "found" by being at her post. It's a waste of others' time to go looking for her.

Just say "No offense, but ...

"No offense" is a noise expression and doesn't add or detract from the meaning or effect of the rest of the sentence. She'll feel offended or not, depending totally on her.

"No offense" is sometimes mistakenly believed by the speaker to excuse a statement that the speaker himself believes is offensive. It doesn't work.
posted by JimN2TAW at 7:18 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Working in restaurants for the last 10 years, I've dealt with my fair share of people like this. My tactic is to make them not want to talk to me. I'm a pretty crass person to begin with, but upping that factor can turn a lot of people off to even wanting to approach me. You say she's lived a pretty sheltered life, so I'm sure it won't be hard to shock her. How about every time she comes to talk to you, you tell her the grossest dead baby joke you can muster?
posted by MaryDellamorte at 3:50 PM on November 24, 2008

Response by poster: Not sure if anyone is interested, but I figured I'd post a follow up anyway.

Since employing a few of the tricks mentioned here, namely ignoring her (no eye contact, disinterested body language) and being crude (asking very personal questions about her sex life), my colleagues and myself seem to have trained A to be wary about approaching us to chat. She hardly approaches us any more, and we no longer feel guilty about saying "I have stuff to do" and walking away.

Thanks guys.
posted by Solomon at 2:46 AM on January 13, 2009

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