Don't go away mad (but please go away! for a few minutes! so I can work!)
July 14, 2011 3:34 PM   Subscribe

Is there a technique / piece of ancient wisdom / secret phrase that (a) will get overzealous office conversationalists to back off, and (b) won't leave them mortally offended (or that at least will help me avoid Things Getting Weird in the workplace or elsewhere I have to interact with the same people regularly)?

Certain tasks I am apt to perform now and then require a fairly high degree of concentration (e.g., delicate hand-soldering). I am fine doing them alone, but often that isn't really feasible in, say, the workplace. And while I can totally understand people being curious about what I'm doing (meddling with electronic thingies does look interesting sometimes!), it is really detrimental to my concentration (and hence my task performance) to be constantly interrupted, asked questions, etc., while I am working.

Now, most people I am liable to be around when doing tricky/focusy work are totally fine with letting me be once I tell them I am trying to concentrate, etc.

But there always seems to be one or two people (usually of the strongly extroverted personality type) who simply cannot understand what I am on about when I tell them to please hold their questions until I am done with [fiddly thing]. My exchanges with such persons tend to go something like this:

Me: [working quietly on thing]

Extroverted Colleague: "Blah! Blah blah. Blah?"

Me: "Do you need something?"

EC: "Oh no, just seeing what you were doing. That's a long piece of wire you've got there! Who are you going to vote for in the next election? Did you know that soldering irons are hot? Also, dinosaurs!"

Me: "Um, I really need to concentrate on this, can you maybe not talk to me until I'm done?"

EC: "Okay, but I didn't realize you needed me to GO AWAY COMPLETELY AND NEVER TALK TO YOU EVER AND NOT EVEN BE ANYWHERE YOU COULD POTENTIALLY SEE ME in order to do your job!"

Me: . . .

Hopefully you get the idea. Primarily, I am looking for practical ways to avoid ending up in this weird dynamic where it seems like no matter what I do or say it gets taken as me being:

- some sort of prima-donna OR,

- some fragile little flower who obviously needs a litany of pep talks (because obviously the only reason I could possibly need uninterrupted work time is because I "lack self-confidence", and if I REALLY REALLY TRIED, I could become the kind of person who can walk, talk, and juggle bowling pins all at once, so therefore my rejection of their conversational overtures must be an indication that I "want to live in my comfort zone rather than trying to improve myself").

I really don't think wanting quiet (TEMPORARY quiet, at that) to work on tricky tasks is in any way strange, bizarre, or otherwise snowflakey. In my experience it's an extremely common, garden-variety thing for engineers and the like to request. But how do I convince my extroverted colleagues and compatriots of this? I feel like any kind of request on my part for ANY change to their behavior is getting twisted around by them and turned weirdly into an opportunity for them to (condescendingly) accuse me of weakness or specialness-seeking. I don't understand this, and obviously I don't like it (even though I generally get along with the people doing it in more casual situations). Halp?
posted by aecorwin to Human Relations (36 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Me: "Um, I really need to concentrate on this, can you maybe not talk to me until I'm done?"

Instead of that (which sounds kind of rude, even if you don't mean it to be), maybe try: "Just a sec...I need 5 more minutes with [fiddly object] and then I'll be able to give you my full attention." A polite smile while you say it will help, too.
posted by phunniemee at 3:40 PM on July 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

I always used to put headphones on (often, connected to nothing). That usually kept away 99.9% of the talkers.

Do you have an office with a door that closes?

Barring that, I've seen people use a flag-type system. Red means "leave me the hell alone at risk of your own safety", and green was "stop by and have a chat".
posted by chrisfromthelc at 3:40 PM on July 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

I totally know where you're coming from, it sucks.

Sometimes I feel it within me to say "Listen sorry I'd love to chat but I really need to focus on this." The difficulty in this is tone - you can't sound like you're trying to get rid of the person, or shy, or weaselly, or aggravated, or whatever. You have to sound mild, pleasant, and confident. You need the tone that overly confident extroverted people use when they want something from you, put a hand on your shoulder, and start a sentence with "hey listen buddy, I'd really appreciate it if you..."

If I can manage that, I'm good. The thing is, I do something that requires deep focus and when thats interrupted its a bit of a shock that leaves me in a state of mumbly aggravation. If I can't snap out of it, then I try to humor the person while keeping 75% of my attention on my work and barely glance at them, and hope they take the hint. Its jerky and indirect, but if you lack the observational capacity to realize that I'm focussed and shouldn't be interrupted, well tough peanuts.
posted by tempythethird at 3:45 PM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

headphones, all the way. not earbuds. big ass headphones. if you're forced to take them off to say something, start putting them back on before you're finished with your sentence. having the earphones in your hands, in mid-air, while you wait for EC to finish his/her sentence will be a powerful deterrent to him/her to keep talking to you.

this is what sulky teenage anthropomorphic did to keep from having to talk to her father :)
posted by anthropomorphic at 3:45 PM on July 14, 2011 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Headphones. With or without music. Everybody knows putting on headphones = do not disturb. I use this to ignore chatty coworkers I don't like (shh!).

Other than that, just being so densely, obtusely polite that none of the jabs get through.

You: "Hey, I'm doing this thing, would you mind chatting later?"

Them (peeved): "Oh, I didn't realize talking to me was so difficult!"

You: "Thanks for understanding. This is tricky." *smile, put on headphones*
posted by griselda at 3:48 PM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It sounds like you're being too nice. You're worrying about THEM being mad when they accuse YOU of of weakness/specialness-seeking/"want to live in my comfort zone rather than trying to improve myself." I would be enraged by a co-worker implying that about me.

But that doesn't mean you have to get into a fight. Just let them see that it pisses you off. Let the flash of anger come across your face. Raise your eyebrow. Say "excuse me??" Then don't dignify it by engaging with it, or feeling like you have to defend or explain yourself. Sure, sometimes explanations and apologies are a great thing, but when you have a tendency to explain and apologize too much to people who aren't entitled to it, you're asking to have people bully you like this.

You: "I really need to concentrate on this, we'll need to talk in a bit." [don't phrase your legitimate and reasonable needs as a pleading question like you did above.]
EC: You are a specialness-seeking prima donna! Blah blah blah
You: Shocked, briefly angry expression, turns back to work.

If just *seeing* that they've offended you isn't enough to nip it in the bud, then just ignore them unless they start trashing you to other people and/or your boss.
posted by Ashley801 at 3:48 PM on July 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

One thing to remember is when you phrase something as a request, people can say no to it. Don't give them that opening.
posted by Ashley801 at 3:50 PM on July 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'd suggest a straightforward, "I'm sorry, I've got to focus to get what I'm working on done."

You can always add the killer -- "I think I'm going to be jammed up for at least a [week/two weeks/month]."

And nthing that there is nothing wrong with you wanting to concentrate and saying so. You don't need to be angry or placating about it, just firm.
posted by bearwife at 3:58 PM on July 14, 2011

I second the headphones.

I still kept on getting interrupted a little a bit with my old ones, so now they're shiny and bright red and you couldn't possibly miss them when they're on my head.

I don't even listen to any music most of the time.
posted by sawdustbear at 4:01 PM on July 14, 2011

Best answer: Head down, hold a finger up and say 'one sec', and don't even acknowledge them or look up, while continuing with your work. Further interjections can be met with 'hang on', 'just a sec', 'hold on', or just silence. And eventually, 'almost there, just a minute', 'just a few more minutes', etc etc. Most people will quit hovering eventually.

If they persist, you can finally stop your work, lift your head, turn around, hands on lap, and say, "Okay, what can I do for you?". After all maybe they actually do have something important to talk about. The strategy here is to make it clear that you are either working or talking to them, but you can't do both, and to bluntly stop any attempts at conversation.
posted by PercussivePaul at 4:03 PM on July 14, 2011 [13 favorites]

Really big headphones, and maybe an eyeshield, if you're actually doing something with tools and your hands. That way, you're armored, they can see that you won't be able to talk to them, and with luck, smile and nod. If you're working at a keyboard, big headphones. I wear them at home, when my family is determined to hang around while I'm working.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:05 PM on July 14, 2011

We use signs at work to indicate when we're not to be disturbed, for example:

On deadline
Please check back with me later if possible—thanks!

Or we put up a picture we have floating around of a little chihuahua with earmuffs that says "Desperately on deadline!" Or, if it's our ship day, we used to put up a picture of this friendly guy with some witty saying boiling down to "It's ship day, please leave us alone."

We're in a very deadline-driven industry, though, so referring to being "on deadline" works pretty well to elicit sympathy and silence from those we need to leave us alone. You may need to substitute your own language on the signs if your industry isn't that way! Otherwise, headphones do work quite well, as long as they're visible; if they're not, you'll just get a lot of people talking to you without realizing that you can't hear them.
posted by limeonaire at 4:29 PM on July 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also, something that might work is sitting at your desk or workbench in such a way (if possible) that you have your back to the room when you really need to concentrate. Like when I'm editing a printout and really need to get into a zone, I'll switch from sitting sort of at an angle, partly facing the door, to facing the desk with my back to everyone. Of course, this could backfire, since then you can't even see people like that coming as they're on their way to invade your space, and so you could be caught unaware and jump when they speak and mess up your work. But if your setup makes that particular scenario unlikely, you might try that—after a while, people may start to figure out that when you sit a particular way, that means you're concentrating, whereas if you sit another way, you're open to conversation.
posted by limeonaire at 4:34 PM on July 14, 2011

How about a hat, that says "shhhhh" or "please don't disturb the genius" or something along those lines? When you pick up the fiddly stuff, pop on your "quiet hat" and just don't respond to anyone's attempts to interrupt you until you're done, and remove the hat. This is similar to the headphones approach, but even more obvious.
posted by Corvid at 4:38 PM on July 14, 2011

Best answer: One other thing that has worked for me: Holding up a hand and saying, "That sounds cool/funny/interesting. I've gotta finish this, though. Can I come by in a few minutes and you can tell me more about it?" And usually they either say, "Oh sure, no problem!" and leave, or they say, "Well, the point was just that ___" and sum it up pretty quickly. And I say, "Oh, that is cool/funny/interesting." And they leave.
posted by limeonaire at 4:39 PM on July 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

The last time I worked in cube land, we gave everyone a strip of crime scene tape to across the entrance to their cube during thinky time.
posted by plinth at 4:51 PM on July 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Is there a reason you can't cultivate a more prickly office persona? Honestly, I know this sounds awful, but some people really are just totally impervious to headphones and polite requests. I have tried both, liberally, and the result was that while my friends got the hint and left me alone, the squeaky wheels just became more forceful about their interruptions (tapping me on the shoulder, literally putting their faces between me and my work, etc). When I started acting a little less polite and started saying "I can't talk right now" -- end of sentence, no apology, no further discussion -- people started to back off. I'm not saying be hostile, but the truth is that they are being pushy and you shouldn't feel bad about standing up for yourself a little.
posted by en forme de poire at 4:53 PM on July 14, 2011

Is there a reason you can't cultivate a more prickly office persona?

Raise your head, slightly cocked, and look them in the eye. Sigh audibly, and say: "Does this story have a point?"
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:04 PM on July 14, 2011

Uh, no, it will not advance the matter to cultivate a reputation as an asshole.

I vote for the direct and matter-of-fact approach, the "I can't talk while I'm doing this. Can I come find you in a few minutes to discuss?" approach. Or doing it behind closed doors.

From the OP, it sounds like you need to bump up your assertiveness and defend your boundaries, and this doesn't require turning into a jerk.
posted by Sublimity at 5:13 PM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Uh, no, it will not advance the matter to cultivate a reputation as an asshole.

If you're talking to me, I was being a little flippant -- like I said, you don't want to be seething hostility. On the other hand, if you're too tentative or apologetic, people sometimes don't take what you're saying very seriously.

Actually, from the second part of your reply it seems like we're mostly on the same page. My main point is, some people will get shirty with you when you set boundaries no matter how politely you do it, and that you shouldn't necessarily be afraid to piss them off in the process.
posted by en forme de poire at 5:32 PM on July 14, 2011

With people who won't stop talking, I've had some success with being direct. Some people don't take hints. It helps to keep your manner friendly - smile, use a calm and friendly tone. And then just tell them what you want:

"Please stop talking."

"Please go away."

"I need you to leave me alone right now."
posted by medusa at 5:47 PM on July 14, 2011

Response by poster: Whoah, this is awesome (me being relatively new around these parts)...lots of potentially useful suggestions in addition to being fascinating from an anthropological standpoint to see so many distinct perspectives on the situation! Thanks, folks.

For those recommending headphones: I recently got wise to the "maybe earbuds aren't obvious enough" thing and got some large, over-the-ear, bright blue headphones. These have done a bangup job helping ward off would-be smalltalkers / douchecreeps on public transit, but unfortunately seem to have little effect on people who get that I don't want to be bugged when wearing them but simply seem not to care.
posted by aecorwin at 6:09 PM on July 14, 2011

Can you get a sympathetic colleague to chime in and tell the offender that he or she needs to let you work in peace?
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:17 PM on July 14, 2011

A sign is the key. Big letters, and it should say something like

AECORWIN is doing a VERY delicate operation now and he needs ALL his concentration to do it successfully. Thank you for not disturbing him.

A friend of mine did this, and it really helped. If you like, you can include a pack of postits with instructions to visitors that they should write their name on it, and that you'll get back to them at your first opportunity.
posted by jasper411 at 6:44 PM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

If the signs and crime scene tape and and hats don't help (I need to knit myself some crime scene tape...), as a last resort, maybe start tracking how often the interruptions happen after you've asked people to stop bugging you?

Keep the track list anonymous, but show it to your supervisor and say something along the lines of, "Hey, we've got some really friendly people in the office. That's great--who wants to work the jerks? Problem is, I have a lot of fiddly electronics tasks that require complete concentration. Is there any chance you know a place where I can set up my fiddly electronic equipment that's out of the way so I'm less likely to be disturbed? I've tried telling the nice folks here, but a handful of them aren't taking the hint, as you can see. Thanks!"
posted by smirkette at 6:48 PM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In situations like this I have great success with ear protection, but not headphones. Headphones with a cord can make people think you're listening to music, which you can pause and get back to later. Head down to a local sporting goods store and pick up a paid of hearing protection for skeet shooting. The pair I have are emblazoned with Winchester on each ear piece. A sure recipe for total serenity in the workplace :)
posted by Bohemia Mountain at 6:52 PM on July 14, 2011

er pair, not paid, you get the idea!
posted by Bohemia Mountain at 6:53 PM on July 14, 2011

If you're planning to reach out to the people who (from your example) seem to be miffed by your behavior, try to frame it as your problem, not theirs, and be super gracious. Like, "I'm sorry, I just have such a hard time concentrating, even the smallest thing can knock me off my course for the rest of the hour, can we chat later so that I can give you my full attention?" Then, not only are they helping you out, you're also acknowledging their desire for attention.

I've also found that with people who are chatty, a quick talk every single day means you don't get roped into a super long one, once a week; spreading out the noise, as it were.
posted by lhall at 7:03 PM on July 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Don't talk back, ignore them except for a polite smile and finger to the lips when they start. They will continue to natter on, but (usually) after being blanked long enough they will go away.

Follow this up afterwards with making sure you make small talk with them later. If they get huffy about earlier, just say sorry, you have times you really can't be distracted.
posted by edgeways at 7:06 PM on July 14, 2011

try to frame it as your problem, not theirs, and be super gracious

I do this. It works great: "Man, I'm sorry, but I really can't multitask. If the phone rings while I'm making toast, I hyperventilate. Can we talk after I finish this?"
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:43 PM on July 14, 2011

I know this isn't exactly an answer to your question, but I've found that enduring a mundane conversation with someone can pay off. Overly chatty people get the cold shoulder from a lot of people, so a little attention goes a long way. You may lose 10 minutes, but you'll probably gain a favour or two when you need it (especially if you're a better listener than the people they normally work for).
posted by Popular Ethics at 8:36 PM on July 14, 2011

Response by poster: Re. framing it as my problem, when I try that, that's the kind of thing that tends to get people either feeling sorry for me (ew!) or expressing concern that I am feeling sorry for *myself* (double ew). Might be an okay place to acknowledge here that I do actually have a diagnosis of Asperger's, but you can bet I do NOT go around bringing that up whenever I run into a difficult communication situation. So, probably not going to go the "it's me, not you" route, though I appreciate the efforts of those making such suggestions and hope this does not seem inordinately dismissive.

Even though in some cases it probably IS me (especially if it's a matter of someone "not liking my tone" -- I am mystified by people who seem to be able to control their tone to convey exactly what they want it to every time, even under stress), I just have this utter revulsion-aversion to people getting all "oh you poooooor thing" with me, as well as to the very idea that I might be trying to use some aspect of how my brain works as an "excuse for special treatment". I don't think there is anything remotely special about not wanting to be interrupted for a while when working on something fiddly, and THAT is what I wish I could more effectively convey to people. If that makes any sense.

Oh and to clarify, re. "cultivating a prickly office persona"...the way it usually works without ANY attempt to convey that on my part is that a few people in any given environment are bound to see me as "prickly". But not everyone sees me that way (at least not out loud) so I don't know if it's that some people bring out my inner porcupine or what.

All that aside, some of these suggestions are truly wonderful. I especially like the idea of working to avoid getting overly explanatory/defensive, as that IS something I've tended to have a problem with (mostly as an overcompensation reaction to having been told I was "rude" so much whilst growing up...I also have a problem with compulsive tic-like apologizing, though I'm much better now about that than when I was a teenager).

I like the hat idea, too, and I would love to do something to demonstrate that I do in fact have a sense of humor -- e.g., put a label on the hat saying "THIS IS MY WORKING QUIETLY HAT" or something. Obviously that would not work in EVERY workplace, but it might in the more casual ones. Yay, ideas!
posted by aecorwin at 9:30 PM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Can't you put up a sign and/or barrier to keep people away from you when you need to concentrate? Maybe something that says, "Please do not disturb me, I need to concentrate on some very important work! If you need to talk to me, please come back at ##:## PM"

If someone still insists on talking to you, point at the sign and repeat what it says: "Unless my assistance is needed to save human lives RIGHT AT THIS VERY MOMENT, please respect my need to concentrate and get this delicate piece of work done. You can come back at ##:## PM".
posted by Seboshin at 10:31 PM on July 14, 2011

My old boss had a pair of bright yellow air crew ear protectors (which he got from glider training) that he wore whenever he was doing something that required deep concentration. They were highly visible and after a while, people realised that meant 'no chatting please' and left him (mostly) alone.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:44 AM on July 15, 2011

Best answer: I'm going to chime in here to say that making those 10 minutes available to talk to the chatty person really goes a long way into preventing chattiness later.

Before you get really involved in your work, go visit them in their office space (passive-aggressive revenge! no. well maybe a bit.. depends on the chatty person in question) and engage them in conversation. I find this makes them leave me alone throughout the rest of the day. They might come back later if they have a follow up to the earlier conversation ("I'll show you a picture of my cat later." .... "Here is that picture of my cat!")

I had to learn the art of small talk when I started working.
posted by royalsong at 7:01 AM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

As far as tone goes, taking a second to envision what you're going to say and how you want to say it before talking helps a lot.

I used to get a lot of comments from people about how they hated interrupting me and were really intimidated by me because - well, basically because I considered them interruptions to my REAL work. But, if someone is coming to talk to me about work, or if it's a chance to get to know one of my co-workers a little better, that's an important part of the job too. Making those connections, earning favors and getting on good terms with people is actually very important and not just a distraction, and it's important to remember that.

So for me I find I need to take one breath to switch from 'hm, what is this analysis here...' mode to 'this person is being friendly. Yay! I like friendliness.' mode. Even if I have to ask them to come back later at least it means I'm thinking of them as a person who's trying to be nice, rather than thinking of them as a Thing In The Way.
posted by Lady Li at 9:37 PM on January 30, 2012

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