You know I don't want to talk to you!
November 27, 2012 10:33 AM   Subscribe

How to deal with a junior coworker who's overbearing?

This colleague is a woman a few years my junior (both age and experience, I'm 29). We'll call her Sri for short.

We don't even do project work together, our interaction is mostly for social events within the department - we're two of several people who are active in the social/fundraising/youth programs, and plan things for our department - voluntary, fun things, non-critical things.

She has an overbearing demeanor I often find inappropriate and grating. Some of her other less-than-desirable qualities include: social obliviousness and self-absorption, lack of tact, nasal whiny voice, her wanting to be the center of attention, and her being very defensive and quick to take offense. If it matters, she still lives with her parents. They came here from India less than a decade ago I think.

Most of those traits I can forgive, but I hate it when she forces herself upon me. I think she does recognize when I'm not open to talking with her, but she'll make me stop what I'm doing and give her my undivided attention anyway. She'll stand in my way, she'll get into my personal space, she'll demand I stop and answer her, she'll even shout after me. Half the time it's an attempt at being social and friendly. A few weeks ago she interrupted my conversation, elbowed her way in to our table, and forced me to look at her a pictures of her family on a recent trip. The other half the time it's regarding an event she's planning - last week she shouted at me to get me to answer whether I'm coming to her cocktail party after work, even though I've RSVPd (tentative), and I was busy walking and talking with a colleague. I'd tried saying "not now" and she refused to be brushed off. I then started to bark something rude back at her before my colleague pretty much cut me off and led me away, telling Sri we're busy talking about work.

Talking with people in the office, it's clear they all know what she's like, and that people have just done their best to appease her or ignore her. I think this is how she's adapted to people trying to ignore her and avoid her - she's gotten more aggressive and refuses to be ignored. Ugh.

At this point, I need to pick a strategy to handle her and proceed with that. But I'm getting different answers from different people. One suggested I proceed with accommodating her and even apologize for barking at her (because she probably took offense) and just don't let her bother me, just let it go - her career is going to suffer as a result, isn't that enough? Another colleague suggested talking to her about it and seeing about coming to an understanding, go see our supervisor maybe and see if he can talk to her. But my Bangladeshi friend who just left the office and knows her best says to ignore her - ignore, ignore, ignore. It's her punishment for being socially incompetent, and it's not our place to educate her at this point in her life. Don't bring it up with our boss, we don't want to be known for making waves.

Please, metafilter - how would you deal with this lady?
posted by ergo to Human Relations (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Talking with people in the office, it's clear they all know what she's like, and that people have just done their best to appease her or ignore her.

That makes sense. It's not appropriate to take it upon yourself to school her on professional behavior or placate her. The way you describe your colleague seems appropriate: they cut you off when you got personally upset, and they were able to shut Sri down by saying you were busy talking about work. So that colleague might be a good model for you to watch and learn from. Be firm without being rude.

Stop talking with people in the office about this person. It's good that you've gotten confirmation that you're not being oversensitive, but beyond that, it's gossip and not fair or professional.
posted by headnsouth at 10:40 AM on November 27, 2012 [9 favorites]

A 'tentative' isn't really an RSVP at all

Stop gossiping about her behind her back

Be professional and courteous and suck it up, basically
posted by MangyCarface at 10:46 AM on November 27, 2012 [8 favorites]

The one person I've known who behaved in a fashion similar to what you describe also had all sorts of psychological and psychiatric problems and had been abused as a child. I have no idea if that has any bearing on your situation, of course, but it's a possibility to keep in mind when you're considering punishing her some more.
posted by XMLicious at 10:46 AM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

She interrupts you,...

You go "now is not a good time (, I'm talking to x)" and continue the conversation you're having or continue writing the email you were writing or whatever it is.

Repeat as often as is necessary.

Substitute "That won't be possible" as required.

Unless you are supposed to be coaching her or supervising her or assessing her in some way that's about as far as you should go.
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:47 AM on November 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

Don't take this to the boss, you can handle this.

When she comes barging in, simply say, "I'm not able to speak with you now." Then turn away from her and proceed to do whatever you were doing. Working, playing scrabble on your phone, putting your lipstick on. If she continues, turn back around and say, "I'm busy. Another time." That should do it.

Who cares if she's offended?

I have loathed people I worked with and it was pretty evident that I disliked them. After a while they steered clear of me. I like it that way.

Once someone said something to me about a particular person whom rubbed nearly everyone the wrong way, "Hey, I don't have to like him, I just have to work with him."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:47 AM on November 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

It's her punishment for being socially incompetent

This is sort of an ugly sentiment. You're at work to work. When Sri does something intrusive, it is appropriate to state that you prefer to keep conversations at work focused on work / you need to return to the task at hand immediately.

If it matters, she still lives with her parents. They came here from India less than a decade ago I think.

This is especially irrelevant given cultural norms in some parts of India and among some Indian-American groups. If overall this is the level of social scrutiny that people in your office face, it's no wonder that some of them respond poorly.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 10:48 AM on November 27, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: One thing that helps me be more sympathetic (or at least tolerant) of people like this is to remember something I heard once that has always stuck with me: Difficult people are used to others treating them with annoyance or dismissiveness, and still, for whatever reason, they do not change their behavior. This would indicate, at least to me, that they can't, or at the very least don't want to. It's ultimately none of your business how this lady conducts herself or what the reasons behind it are. I promise you that, whatever is going on with her, she is not trying to hurt you, and you're reacting to her as if she is. That's not a very empathetic or productive attitude.

You can't change her behavior - the only thing you can control is how you interact with her. I have had extremely difficult coworkers in the past and I dealt with it by keeping contact and conversation to an absolute minimum, while still having an overall friendly aura. Ultimately, though, you're just going to have to be a grownup and accept that people are different, and some of them are annoying, but that doesn't make them worthy of your scorn.

And agreeing with everyone else: Cut out the gossip.
posted by something something at 10:53 AM on November 27, 2012 [15 favorites]

I don't agree that you have to suck it up, but you could perhaps indeed tackle that person directly instead of trading stories about her with others.

It really helps people who are or seem socially oblivious in the ways you describe to get treated to a few hard rules. Tackle the tops of the iceberg, make it a matter of 'three basic rules for interacting with ergo'. These tops seem to be:

1) Interrupting conversations (no matter whether they are about work or not, actually).

Tell her that you don't tolerate being interrupted when you're talking to someone else. There must be time for both. If she wants to talk to you at all, she must accept that rule. It is in her own interest not to piss you off if the thing she really wants is saying something to you. Simple.

2) Shouting.

Tell her that you do not wish to be shouted at. You don't shout, she shan't shout. Shouting is a workaround when there's too much ambient noise, not a default mode of one-to-one interaction. End of story.

3) Intruding into work- or personal space.

Different people need different types of space around their persons for their well-being and well-functioning. There's research being done about this kind of stuff. Those who need more space can find themselves at a disadvantage if those who need less space make being-too-close a habit. But there's more to it: getting too close is a tool of power, which is effective largely because the topic is a) difficult to address gracefully once the situation is there, and b) downright awkward to bring up when it isn't. Address it anyway. You need the space, she must give you the space, period. 'You can talk to me, nothing wrong with that, but you must quit trying to get on my lap.'

Repeat as necessary. Skip all the other nonsense about junior and senior and all that. Communicating your three rules will keep you busy for a while, but if done in a calm yet persistent spirit, you'll likely get some results.
posted by Namlit at 11:28 AM on November 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

A method I've heard about to deal with people invading your personal space is to be direct and concrete. "I feel uncomfortable with you standing so close. Please stand at least an arm's length away." Then step away to a distance where you can extend your arm out, and physically do so, so that your boundary is clear. (Do not touch her, certainly don't push her! You should be the one moving away from her, though if she steps back in reaction, all to the good.) Repeat as necessary. I haven't tried this myself, but I thought I'd pass it on.
posted by BrashTech at 11:34 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

"I understand that you want to speak to me, but I am in the middle of a conversation with someone else. If you want to speak with me, please don't interrupt. I'm not going to answer you until I'm finished this conversation", etc.

The problem with ignoring people like this is that a) it makes the behaviour worse and b) they often don't adequately understand why people are weird around them, because everyone avoids addressing the issue. Set some polite boundaries, be firm. You don't have to teach her manners, but you do have to teach her how to treat you.
posted by windykites at 12:40 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know she has been in the US for 10 years, but maybe she leads a very sheltered life living with her parents and hasn't really internalized many social norms.
this website explains some social norms of India -including the fact that the idea of personal space is non-existent.

I don't like the advice people above me have of "it's not your job to teach her to be polite" and all of that, as if suddenly one day she will wake up unprovoked and go "ah ha!" and suddenly change. Some people are clueless, so ask for what you want. Be firm. Ignoring the behavior only makes it worse if you don't address the issue.
posted by eq21 at 1:18 PM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Go to your (presumably) mutual supervisor, and give them the feedback about this person. Let the supervisor know that you think it would be best to handle this by giving her the feedback directly, but that you felt it best to consult with the supervisor first and get their advice on how to handle it before you proceed with your direct feedback approach.

This makes the supervisor your ally, and if you're not the only one complaining*, gives them another data point on how important it is to deal with the issue. It also protects you from blowback if you give her the feedback directly and she gets offended and complains.

If the supervisor gives you an approach to try, try it, diligently and consistently, and report back after a few weeks on whether or not it worked. If the supervisor says "your approach sounds good", do that** diligently for a few weeks, then report back. Working with the supervisor on this is what makes it a business problem to solve rather than a personal issue between the two of you.

*obviously others don't like it, but they may not be complaining to the supervisor. When someone else complains to you about them, you're better off saying "I'm working with [the supervisor] on it, so if it bothers you, [the supervisor] might want to hear your input" rather than "you should complain to the boss!" or "here's what [the supervisor] told me to do!".

**personally, if left to my own diligence, I'd wait until it happened again, and I'd derail whatever activity they wanted to engage in by saying "actually, [person], this is a really good time for us to talk about something", pull them into a conference room, and lay it out: "look, you're a good person as far as I can tell, but you seem to be having trouble understanding my personal boundaries. When I'm talking to someone, I don't appreciate being interrupted; when I'm busy with other work, I don't appreciate being interrupted; when I am on my way somewhere, I don't appreciate being physically blocked; when I am far away from you, I don't appreciate being yelled at. If you want my attention, please walk up to me and ask for it, and if I say no, please respect that. Do you have any questions?"
posted by davejay at 1:20 PM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

The problem seems to stem more from cultural differences than merely personal sensibilities. I would welcome this as an opportunity to learn more about how to not just "deal" with Sri, but with many more like her that you might encounter in a lifetime.

For starters, do you work at a university? If so, there are probably courses you can take that are aimed at professional development, some of which are bound to talk about the subject. There might even be an international office that organizes events etc. I would seriously consider becoming more involved such activities. This will give you a chance to not only interact with more international and learn about them and their behaviours but also with the natives and learn about their experiences with internationals.

If you don't work at a university, and Sri is college-educated, she should have learnt this at her college in the US, if you are in the US. Unfortunately not all internationals do and in this case, I suggest you have a chat with her regarding how much you value your time. You don't have to pose the discussion as you do here (because you may not get across to her) but I would emphasize that when you are busy, you are busy. If you are not interested in going somewhere, thats what it means. I certainly wouldn't apologize for anything, even if you think you ought to, because that will just backfire for you.

Also, I would strongly urge you to look at your own behaviour. Talking about a junior colleague to others in your office reflects poorly on you as a professional. If you expect Sri to be professional and respectful, the same should hold true for you. Why not lead others by example? I strongly feel that learning more about differences in cultures will really help you. You may not be interested in doing this- which is fine. In that case, it might help to remember that each one of us has to tolerate people to different degrees, and Sri is no different.
posted by xm at 2:00 PM on November 27, 2012

I think it's important to stay professional, this means being calm, and not telling people how to behave except insofar as it relates directly to their interactions with you.

Be firm, consistent, calm, and ensure she doesn't "win" by sheer doggedness of pushing through your boundaries.

Also: You should never, ever shout ("bark") at someone in a professional setting. Never. Especially not something rude. It is extremely unprofessional regardless of how stressed/annoyed/desperate you are.
posted by smoke at 2:20 PM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

In the incident where you were walking with the colleague and you were shouted at, I maybe would have excused myself politely from the conversation with the colleague, walked over to Sri, and said, "I'm not going to be able to make it to your cocktail party. Next time you have a question for me, please approach me privately and make sure I'm free to talk. If I say 'not now,' that means now's not a good time to talk, but you can always email me. Can you do that for me?"

At this point, Sri will either agree (especially if you are careful with your tone), or take the route that non boundary conscious, reactive, defensive people tend to take when they're confronted, which is to protest that they don't see what the big deal is with what they're doing. At this point, you can keep the burden of responsibility on them either by asking them what the problem is with your request, or pointing out that everybody else seems to communicate fine without these kind of issues and suggest following up one on one later after you both have a chance to cool off because it's important that the two of you be on the same page with how you communicate because this kind of friction isn't good to have in the office.

The key is not to get rattled if the other person becomes hostile or agitated. Oftentimes, becoming hostile and/or going on the offensive is the "trump card" of people whose abrasive behavior comes from blind spots to how they treat others, and they use it because it works on a lot of people. It's easy to do when they're caught by surprise, which is happening because your feelings are popping up on their radar for the first time during the confrontation, and it's actually a sign that they're scared. Don't sink to their level, don't engage from a defensive position, don't drop the issue unless it's been resolved through a civil conversation, and model the kind of communication you want from the other person.

FWIW, I've studied confrontation by reading The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work, Crucial Confrontations, and Crucial Conversations. I had one of them within the past two weeks with someone at work who wound up apologizing to me later "for being such a bitch," and I've had enough of them to know you could fit a flow chart for how most of them go on a 3" x 5" card, especially with people like Sri.
posted by alphanerd at 3:54 PM on November 27, 2012 [8 favorites]

Act like you're a professional. You're at work and that's your job.

If you don't want to go to her cocktail party, and she invites you, say you won't be able to attend. If you're working and she bothers you, tell her you have to work and can't talk. But don't be exasperated, don't be curt, and don't be rude. Just be a professional. Be calm and collected and unflappable.

It's great to like your coworkers, but she's not your friend and she doesn't have to be. Just because she's not the type of person you'd want to be friends with doesn't mean you have to be annoyed by that.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:42 PM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I see a lot of people saying to tell her "not now" or "this is not a good time", but I don't see anybody saying when IS a good time. If she is interrupting your work or conversation, say something like "I'm busy right now; I'll come see you in 10 minutes/at 9:15/whatever". And then do it.
posted by CathyG at 9:43 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

You need to pull her aside and let her know that when she interrupts you while you're having a conversation with someone else or while working, it is very rude and very ineffective. Let her know that when you say "not now," you mean it. BUT, you promise that you WILL get back to her and she WILL get your full attention on that particular issue.

This way, you put your boundary out there but also gives her an incentive to leave you alone so you can give her attention later on. You must follow up with her later as promised.
posted by white_strawberries at 12:58 PM on November 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

I see a lot of people saying to tell her "not now" or "this is not a good time", but I don't see anybody saying when IS a good time.

That's because, based on the question, the vast majority of this person's attempts at communication are not needed for the OP to do their job, or even their additional role for the department. Why would you make an appointment to have a conversation you don't need to have with a person you don't want to talk to?
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:49 AM on December 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

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