He's on the same train. He won't stop talking. I'm his new boss.
October 31, 2018 10:16 AM   Subscribe

I need a script/strategy for a unusual, annoying commute issue. I've got a new employee that won't shut up. I have to deal with him two hours each day on a commuter train. And I'm his new boss.

A few weeks ago, I changed jobs, switching to a different division in the same company, and I inherited a dozen new direct reports. That's all good.

One of them is a middle-aged guy, same as me. And he's a talker. There's been no conversation with him that doesn't last three times as long as it needs to. He tells me he's buying a lawnmower, and I now I know the brand and model, the engine horsepower, the special features, etc, and how he's going to make his teenage son mow the lawn with it (vertically, in lines, not a circle because then you don't get the cool stripes).

And he's on my train now. An hour each way. Same starting point. Same ending point. I made the terrible mistake of telling him there was a hidden parking lot one stop farther away, but it's never crowded. And boom. Now I have a train buddy.

Did I mention he's a talker?

Now, this is an unfortunately common thing with me. As I've joked with my wife, I apparently have a face or a smile or a demeanor that says to the world, "Tell me everything. Leave nothing out. Make this as awkward as possible." Seriously, if I'm spending five minutes in a waiting room, the other person in the room will tell me their life story. As my son says, everyone else is "Talktalktalktalk" and I'm "talk." Talktalktalktalk. "Talk." Talktalktalktalktalk. "Hmm, talk." Talktalktalktalk talkity talk and then talktalktalk. "Talk."

I don't want to talk on the commute. I want to read email, check Twitter and watch Netflix. In the mornings, sometimes, I wanna sleep. I fucking hate other people that are Chatty Cathys in a long metal tube where everyone can overhear everything. If he would sit next to me in silence, fantastic.

But he's there. Talking. Talktalktalk.

The kicker is ... I'm his new boss. Workwise, I speak to him every day. I have to, that's the job. I have to give him direction, advice, etc. Hell, I'll be doing his employee reviews and deciding if he gets a raise and a bonus and stuff. He's not a bad employee, either. Good, actually.

What do I say to him? What do I do? I'm gonna have to bite the bullet and take care of this, but I don't know exactly what to say.

Additional info:

* Could I take another train? Yes, but it's out of my way or it's later than I want. I can't go earlier because of a family need.
* Could I sit somewhere else on the train? Not really. Everyone's starting in the same spot on the platform.
* Could I drive? Yes, but c'mon, free train. Plus email and Netflix.
posted by Cool Papa Bell to Grab Bag (40 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You have to rip off the bandaid. Sit down with him and say "Horace, I really enjoy working with you and your contributions to $whatever have been great! But I have to be honest, I really rely on my commute to be my vegging time for the day. My whole day is better if I have those two hours to sit in total silence. I enjoy talking to you but I have to ask you to pretend you don't see me if we run into each on the train."

Then make a modest attempt to be chatty with him during the workday. Grab lunch once a month or something. That will help seal the "it's not you, I just like a quiet commute" message.

Good luck. Someone -- anyone -- talking to me like that would drive me out of my skull.
posted by kate blank at 10:23 AM on October 31, 2018 [130 favorites]

"Hey employee, I actually prefer to use my time on the train to catch up on my email and watch some Netflix - would you mind saving the conversation until we get to the office?"
posted by mskyle at 10:23 AM on October 31, 2018 [7 favorites]

"Hey, new employee. Commute time is when I catch up on sleep, Netflix, and long emails. Don't take it personally, but I'm not going to be good for much conversation while we're riding in to work. Thanks for understanding."

Repeat as necessary. There more you try to be kind and polite about it, the more you're going to get sucked into endless dumb lawnmower conversations. You have got to set the expectations and norms here. You're the boss! You get to be blunt about this!

Is he going to think you're a rude jerk? Possibly! But you gotta nip this in the bud.
posted by prize bull octorok at 10:24 AM on October 31, 2018 [15 favorites]

The universal sign of "do not talk to me" is to wear headphones. Big cans show this sign the best, but you can always even use earbuds. Take one out slowly, say "What!?" louder than necessary. "Nice" and put it back in.

It's a little rude, but less confrontational than other things.
posted by bbqturtle at 10:24 AM on October 31, 2018 [27 favorites]

Tell this person you don't like talking on the train, and do not want to start work before you even get there. I don't think you need to jazz it up any more than that. Especially since you're their boss, it seems unlikely they'd get confrontational or anything about it and if they're that chatty they can just find someone else to dump it into.
posted by GoblinHoney at 10:24 AM on October 31, 2018 [5 favorites]

"Hey, I appreciate that you're comfortable talking to me, and I imagine that being able to chat on the train makes the daily commute feel so much shorter, but I really like to use that time for personal headspace, either prepping for the (day at work/night at home) or just recharging. I'm sorry, but it would be really helpful to me if I had that time. If you'd like to talk while we're at work, I'm open to that."
posted by hanov3r at 10:25 AM on October 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

"Bob, I appreciate our good working relationship and know it will continue, but I use this time to relax/focus before and after work. I'm going to do my own thing right now, and I'd rather be alone. Nothing personal, thank you for understanding. See you at work."

I think thanking him for his understanding is the most important. People like it when you do that rather than saying "sorry" you say "thank you". "Thanks for waiting!" vs. "Sorry I'm late!"
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:25 AM on October 31, 2018 [28 favorites]

I think it's completely fair to be straightforward. I have two coworkers that both live on my street and after the first time of seeing them on the train, I said 'just fyi, I'm going to ignore you from here on out if I see you, bc it's my me time to read/whatever'. Totally normal and a non-issue.
posted by greta simone at 10:26 AM on October 31, 2018 [8 favorites]

"I like to use my commute time on me. Over the [x] years I have done this commute I have found that it is important to me to use that time to focus, read, meditate, etc. No offence, but with that in mind, I'd like to put off talking until we are at work."

The above -- near as I can tell -- is true. Don't lie to him. Be honest.
posted by terrapin at 10:28 AM on October 31, 2018 [5 favorites]

On my bus commute I've noticed a clear, silent signal that you're not in a talking mood:

Step one: Get on bus behind other person. Other person sits down.
Step two: Sit far away from where other person sits.

YMMV, but I've done it and had it done to me and am mostly not offended.

Aside from that I'd just say "I'm not much for talking on my commute. I'm sleepy in the morning and wiped out after work. I'm going to rest my eyes for a bit now." And then maybe later you wake up or "wake up" and put in headphones, and chat on the way to your respective cars if you can stand it.
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:35 AM on October 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

Employee, I have some audiobooks I need to be listening to, so I have to put on my earbuds now. I'm sure you understand. Put in earbuds.
Employee, I have some spreadsheets I need to be updating, so I can't chat right now. I'm sure you understand. Open laptop, work. If he keeps talking, get a little exasperated. I really need to focus on this.
etc. Is there a quiet car? If not, lobby for one. You have to be consistent and just keep not responding to him. Chat on the platform, probably walking from train to office, but just keep not talking and using earbuds, letting him know you have stuff to do.
posted by theora55 at 10:38 AM on October 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have been That Annoying Talker, who sometimes doesn't pick up on the more subtle cues.

I personally appreciate it when the coworker just says something directly to me. There's no ambiguity; they're explaining that they need quiet time, and thus I should respect that. And then I do.

Just something like: "Hello, Coworker X! On commutes, I really prefer to zone out/nap/listen to the radio/read long emails; I'll talk to you at the office." It lets me know that I'm not being ignored and shunned, and that instead they just need some space.
posted by spinifex23 at 10:40 AM on October 31, 2018 [16 favorites]

Two angles on it: First, you don't want to talk because you like your commute to be personal time. Second, you as a manager don't want to create the impression of impropriety by spending significantly more time with one of your reports than with the others.

As you first make eye contact on the platform this evening, or as your on your way out the door of the office, you say, "Sam, just to let you know, I'm going to take the ride today as personal time, it's what I used to do before we were on the same train, and I miss it. I like being able to walk in the door at home refreshed and ready to spend time with my family, and as an introvert that only works if I get some time to myself on the train. You're welcome to sit next to me if you want, but I'm just warning you that I'm going to be reading my book and not talking." For this introductory period it does work best if you've got a long-form thing that you're "doing" not just websurfing on your phone. If he starts asking you about your book, you pause, give him a look, and then say "I'd rather not talk, thanks!". You do *not* say "it's a novel" or anything softening/explanatory, or "it's a book about managing difficult employees" or anything snarky; either might be interpreted as starting a conversation.

In the morning, talk politely for 5 minutes, then say, "ok, I'm going to take a nap now." This is one time when putting headphones in is absolutely appropriate and not trying to hint your way through a brick wall. Put in your headphones, and unless he says something to you that is directly important (like The train is on fire, you have to pay attention now!) you pretend you can't hear anything. It will be hard to keep your eyes closed under pressure, but just do it. Hat over eyes if possible.

As "this is the way things are today" becomes "this is how things always are", he will either be forced to be a quiet seat companion, or he'll start sitting elsewhere, or you'll need to explicitly tell him that this is the way things will always be now and going forward. You can say things like "I know I've kind of put my foot down about spending my commutes quiet; you don't have to sit here if you'd rather find someone to talk to." And when it's time to break out the big guns (i.e. if he objects) that's when you play the "manager" card:

"I really like having you on my team at work. As a manager it's important to me to keep work relationships as smooth as possible. One way I do that is by keeping those relationships mostly separate from my personal life; the other thing I like to do is to make sure that I'm not spending significantly more time with one employee than another. It's not about you; I'm glad we've gotten to know each other better on the train. But part of the deal is the appearance of fairness, I wouldn’t want anybody else on the team to get the impression that they need to try for more of my time just to keep up, or to think that I’m likely to show favoritism because I know you better. When you do well at work, I want to be able to tell you so without anybody thinking you didn’t earn it. "
posted by aimedwander at 10:42 AM on October 31, 2018 [19 favorites]

If, after trial separation, he starts getting whiny and brings it up as a "not allowed to sit next to you" you can say "I'm trying to avoid this turning into a bad sitcom plot where our main character isn't going to work today but has to wear a disguise so his boss doesn't recognize him on the train, and wackiness ensues".
posted by aimedwander at 10:50 AM on October 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

There are two important things to achieve for maximum non-awkwardness:

1) DO NOT give him the impression that you think he’ll be upset or unhappy. Over explaining or apologizing for normal boundaries makes people feel embarrassed or condescended to.

DO act like they are chill adults with lots of other options, who will obviously not mind.

2) DO NOT make it obvious that you’ve been annoyed about it before. This is embarrassing and/or can generate resentment for you not being more clear sooner.

DO act like things have changed and now you need them to adapt. Going forward. Because they were fine before, of course.

SCRIPT: “Hey, I’m trying to get all my computer/Netflix time in during my commute so I can focus on family stuff when I get home so I won’t get to chat as much anymore. Still adjusting to the new schedule, you know how it is!” Then put your headphones in with a smile and do the whole “what?” thing until it’s 100% clear.

If that seems too drastic you can hint at it beforehand by mentioning that you’re behind on Twitter / Netflix / email but that might feel too manipulative for you to be comfortable with it.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 11:00 AM on October 31, 2018 [32 favorites]

kate blank has it. This is such a reasonable request to make! You don't have to make it into a big thing. "This is my time to zone out" is something anyone can understand.

(Also, I find that people who like to talk at you like this are also usually pretty straightforward types and don't need to be handled with delicate kid gloves.)
posted by cakelite at 11:03 AM on October 31, 2018 [5 favorites]

Kate Blank's comment exactly, except I don't think you need to have lunch one on one with this one employee once a month -- or once a year, or ever, really -- if you don't do that with other employees. Expect him not to take it personally and don't overcompensate. (For me, having lunch with a boss or employee once a month is a big deal.)
posted by nantucket at 11:32 AM on October 31, 2018 [7 favorites]

I agree that being friendly but direct is the way to go here. Rather than trying to send some signals he might miss (I would totally miss signals myself!), that might make him wonder why you are behaving oddly, I'd say to have a brief conversation the next time you're on the platform along the lines of what folks have suggested. Don't use a one-time thing, like an audio book, but communicate that you use your commute for alone time/quiet time and to decompress. Then each time you see him, greet him warmly and exchange pleasantries and then pop on your headphones.

If you try to send signals you'll end up coming across as rude and it will likely confuse him.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:47 AM on October 31, 2018

This is a boundary and it's a necessary part of management to set boundaries of various kinds with your direct reports. Uncomfortable sometimes, but good for you to do and good for them to experience.

I've encountered this in all directions as part of a traveling work team. It feels awful to say "I don't want to hang out with you" but it's a necessary thing. I once made an offer of dinner (an offer I felt obligated to make but didn't actually want to do) that my coworker declined with "I'm actually an introvert, huge personality notwithstanding, and I just need to recharge after being On for people all day" and it was very graceful.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:06 PM on October 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

This should not at all be about your personal need to Netflix and instead should completely be about not having personal relationships with direct reports outside of work. Say good morning every morning, yeah but you can't spend an extra, personal 2 hours a day with a direct report... that is legitimately unfair in a supervisory role.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:13 PM on October 31, 2018 [10 favorites]

I agree with being nice but direct, but another suggestion along with wearing the headphones is to tell him tomorrow you have to make an important personal call when you are getting on the train and then go sit away from him. Then the next day just go sit elsewhere. Also, do not forget, you are the boss. Also, he could just be nervous being on the same train as the boss and feels like he has to fill silence.
posted by AugustWest at 12:15 PM on October 31, 2018

I came in to say what DarlingBri said. This is a favoritism complaint just waiting to happen.

"Stu, imagine what Becky or Phil or Terry is going to say when they find out that you and I 'hang out' for two hours a day outside work. Now imagine what happens if I end up giving you a bigger bonus than them. Even if you totally earned it by being the best widget-adjuster on my team, they're not gonna see that. They'll just think, Oh, sure, Cool Papa Bell hangs out with Stu on the train every day, of course he likes him better. And then it's a big thing, and corporate is on both of our asses, and whoo.... So, I'm just going to sit over here in the corner and, I don't know, watch something on my phone. Seeya back at the office tomorrow, okay?"
posted by Etrigan at 12:24 PM on October 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

Do your commuter trains have a quiet carriage? If so, problem solved.
posted by scruss at 12:42 PM on October 31, 2018

I don’t know what industry people are in but in my field it would be bizarre to suggest that you’re not allowed to chat with an employee on a commuter train because of some kind of fairness issue. Suggesting anything like that as a serious concern would make people think you were worried about being romantically linked with that person. Various individual organizations may have nepotism rules around evaluations etc., sure, but even if that’s the case it doesn’t make sense to bring it up when you barely know the guy.

This is one of those social scenarios that happen constantly with no one getting sued or fighting or even getting their feelings hurt. Let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 1:13 PM on October 31, 2018 [8 favorites]

This is so not a big deal. The less of a deal you make it, the less of a deal it will seem to him. Just say "Hey man, my commute is my 'me' time. So I'll nod/wave/say hi when I see you but otherwise I'm going to be in my own head and not up for talking. Nothing personal, I just like to zone out on the train."

I have a work friend I like a lot (We hang out outside of work, and live a block away from each other!) and we have a We Only Nod on the Train agreement. We talked about it and it wasn't awkward and no one's feelings were hurt, although that was helped by the fact we were both on the please don't talk to me side of things. It's pretty normal, IMO, among train commuters to establish these things, especially when you're always on the same trains.
posted by misskaz at 1:21 PM on October 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

I have one of these people on my morning dog walk, which is an hour.

"Peter. I'm sorry if this sounds rude, but time with my dog is the best part of my day and not using it to full effect makes the less good parts of the day even less good. Please don't take it personally, but starting tomorrow, I'm going to nod hello and continue on, solo. Nothing personal. Enjoy your walk!"
posted by dobbs at 1:21 PM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Chat for a minute.

"Anyway, I use the commute as private time to think, zone out, check Twitter. So I'm going to do that now."

Put in your earbuds. Turn on music. Close eyes.

posted by JamesBay at 2:49 PM on October 31, 2018

His constant talking is probably bothering at least one other person on the train, so remember that if you have the slightest twinge of guilt. You are helping others as well as yourself!
posted by soelo at 2:49 PM on October 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

He's a mature adult who's well into his career. This is a little bit different than being super chatty with a peer. If the not-so-subtle boundary issues there haven't influenced his behaviour, I've honestly gotta wonder how else he demonstrates a lack of political acuity. You're only a few weeks in, don't assume this is an isolated issue.
posted by blerghamot at 3:12 PM on October 31, 2018

"Hey Person Name. Good to see you! (Insert smalltalk if neccessary). Well, I'm going to go sit by myself and get some rest. See you at the office/tommorrow!"
posted by windykites at 3:12 PM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Of course I don’t know this guy, but my experience with the Talktalktalk People is that they know they are talkers and are used to having people try to beg off after awhile, and aren’t offended by it. There’s one woman I can even cut off in the middle of a story if I have to, and it’s fine, but if I never cut her off, we would probably spend the better part of the workday together. I think of it as being akin to Ask Culture vs. Guess Culture, but with conversations. The Ask Culture talkers will keep talking, but aren’t too offended by you ending the chat. Whereas a Guess Culture talker is constantly looking for signs you are reciprocating and still interested. I’d assume this man is the former, and you can get away with saying, “Great seeing you, congrats on the new mower. I’m going to go zone out on videos for the rest of the ride. See you in the office!” If you are kind and friendly about it, I’ll bet he’ll let you go without awkwardness. You might have to repeat the process, but if you are like me, “quick chat then excuse myself” feels better than “serious talk about my needs.”
posted by Knowyournuts at 3:36 PM on October 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

In case you go through any of the scripts above and he keeps talking, I find that a non confrontational yet direct way to interrupt someone is to give them the timeout signal with my hands, that will usually make people pause so you can repeat script and then get those headphones on.
posted by tangaroo at 4:29 PM on October 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm usually just really direct and after chatting lightly for 3-5 minutes I grab my headphones or reading device and say "I'm going to grab some introvert time until I get to work" or "I'm going to zone out until I get to work".

This is kind of like an Ask A Manager question, and I think Alison would suggest being direct but kind and just not make a big deal out of it.
posted by matildaben at 4:47 PM on October 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

I just want to say that I find a lot of these scripts to be unnecessarily long-winded. I think if you're having this conversation in the moment (meaning, on the train platform/sitting on the train) for the first time, you can be brief, even casual -- which is not the same as being brusque. This is a very normal request.
posted by sm1tten at 6:26 PM on October 31, 2018 [7 favorites]

Employee, I have some spreadsheets I need to be updating, so I can't chat right now. I'm sure you understand. Open laptop, work. If he keeps talking, get a little exasperated. I really need to focus on this.

I'd caution against this. You don't want this guy (who is now pissed off that you're not talking to him) reporting to your boss that you're doing work on the train because (a) maybe your employer might not want other commuters looking over your shoulder at what might be confidential stuff and (b) your employer might think you can't do the day job during working hours.

I'd go with the big headphones and "I'm going to use this time to catch up on Netflix. See you at the office."
posted by essexjan at 4:03 AM on November 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am sometimes him. I really like being told if I'm bothering someone. It's clear, easy and I don't have to rely on implicit signals I may not be understanding. I don't think I've ever been offended. It happened this afternoon. YMMV, but probably not by much.
posted by deadwax at 4:34 AM on November 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

The universal sign of "do not talk to me" is to wear headphones.

If only, but no. People like this will continue talking and looking expectantly at you and motioning to their ears until you remove your headphones. In my experience this is either because they can't tell that they're bothering you, or because silence makes them uncomfortable and they are deeply confused about whose problem that is.

You need to actually say words that convey "stop taking to me." They can be delivered with a smile e.g. "sorry I just need some introvert time" but you must actually say them.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:06 AM on November 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

It might be too late now but I have a blanket policy of not traveling with my coworkers. It solves all sorts of problems - don't want to sit with the sales manager on a 4hr flight? "No offense, but I have a rule that I don't sit with coworkers when I travel. We'll be seeing enough of each other at [work thing], right?"

It feels weird the first few times you say it but then when you stretch out, pop in your ear buds and take a nap with Sales Manager talking to you all afternoon, it's totally worth it.
posted by dawkins_7 at 1:26 PM on November 1, 2018

As a medium-level chatty person, I’m sure I’ve been on both sides of this. What worked both with and for me was something matter-of-fact along the lines of “hey, I don’t mean to be anti-social, but I really nee to zone out to some music now/listen to an audiobook/whatever,” followed by putting in earbuds. Repeat as necessary.
posted by rpfields at 5:45 PM on November 1, 2018

Contrary to some of the well-meaning advice here, do not fib. Do not offer a white lie. Just be candid, kind, concise, certain and direct. Much easier than trying to dance around the issue.

Trying to spare people’s feelings often ends up hurting those same feelings, because in general functional employable adults prefer not to be infantilized.
posted by Construction Concern at 5:57 PM on November 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

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