How to avoid small talk without being rude?
February 16, 2021 2:47 PM   Subscribe

My desk is close to a photocopier and people always talk to me when they make copies. Usually, I'm not one who is against chit chat, but I'm starting to find it annoying because I'm actually trying to work. How do I avoid small talk at work without being rude about it? It's starting to get on my nerves.

I don't view myself as introverted or extroverted (neither definition ring true to me), so that's not the issue.

For context about why I work so close to a photocopier... I'm currently working in a school library and the school's second photocopier is about 8 feet from my desk in the library. Throughout the day teachers come in and out to make copies (of course) and usually say "hi" which is fine.

HOWEVER, most of the chit chat from them goes into a few categories... mostly complaining about the copier not doing exactly what they want, complaining about not making copies earlier, complaining that someone ELSE has put a job through the copier before they arrived, or just complaining to me about students. I'm not sure why, but I find these complaints to just be straight up annoying. I don't particularly CARE that you copied the wrong number of pages!! I'm trying to work!! They're not just grumbling by saying "Ugh, I made the wrong number of copies." They are straight up RANTING.

I might be reading into the situation a bit. I don't particularly like working in schools anymore, so that's contributing a to my uncharitable attitude. After working in a few schools during my "career," I sincerely get the impression that the majority of teachers view the work I do as very unimportant, frivolous, and BORING! It's fine that my work isn't important to them, but it's important to me and I'd like to be able to concentrate on it. It seems like they want me to stop paying attention to my work and listen to their complaints about everything

I'm not sure how to actually decline these complain-y chit chat opportunities, because usually I don't mind chit chat. I usually like it, so I've never really developed a polite way to decline chit chat. I don't want to come across as a bitch, but it's driving me crazy!!!
posted by VirginiaPlain to Human Relations (36 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Can you get a divider? Or rotate your desk? Or just flat-out tell people the copy machine is an off-limits topic, over and over again until they understand?
posted by aniola at 2:52 PM on February 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

big ass over-ear headphones. change your seat position so you're facing away from the copier.
posted by j_curiouser at 2:53 PM on February 16, 2021 [41 favorites]

Can you wear visible earbuds/headphones? You don’t actually need to be listening to anything...

What about not making eye contact, keeping your eyes on whatever you’re working on, and just nodding from time to time, or a noncommittal “Mmmhmmm” when they’re talking, instead of directly replying/engaging? I’ve had to do this in similar situations and it has worked for me—it gives the signal that you’re focusing and can’t chat.
posted by bookmammal at 2:54 PM on February 16, 2021

Response by poster: I just realized I forgot to add something before aniolia and j_curiouser, I also usually wear a pair of Airpods and listen to music/podcasts. I have long hair, by try to have hair tucked back behind one ear so they can see them. This does nothing to stop chit chat. Wearing over the ear headphones is a no-go. I don't like them and I don't want to hear NO sound. I think it might be a bit much for the school

Also, the furniture can't be arranged and I *am* facing away from the photocopier! So, most people are talking to me as I'm facing AWAY from them. It's weird!!
posted by VirginiaPlain at 2:55 PM on February 16, 2021

Are you sure they're actually talking to you when they're grumbling about the copier? They might not be expecting a response from you. I complain to myself like this even when nobody else is around.

You could consider just ignoring any comments about the copier, and only responding to things that are related to you personally, like greetings or asking about your day.
posted by mekily at 2:56 PM on February 16, 2021 [16 favorites]

I don't particularly have great solutions for you, but: are these people that you need to maintain a certain level of relationship with for professional/social reasons or is it OK if they think you're a bit quirky/not as sociable as they would prefer? You have more leeway if you don't need to have a substantial professional relationship with them for networking/etc. (I know you say you don't want to come across as a bitch, but I think perspectives on what that means and what people/particularly women have to do to maintain "not being a bitch" can vary.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 2:58 PM on February 16, 2021

You could consider AirPod Max over the ear headphones. I’m recommending them specifically because they have a ‘transparency’ mode which allows you to hear external sounds as though you didn’t have big headphones over your ears. Visually huge, but audio-wise, you can pick ‘tansparency’, ‘normal’, or ‘noice cancelllation’ modes, as needed.
posted by whisk(e)y neat at 2:59 PM on February 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

Oh man, I don’t have a lot of constructive suggestions not already mentioned. I just want to offer my sympathy, because it’s not at all unreasonable to be irritated by this. Your situation does sound super annoying, and those people are being inconsiderate. They’re not being overtly rude or antagonistic, exactly, but they are not considering the fact that you’re busy, that listening to other people rant about small frustrations is not interesting, and that because of where you sit, you are subjected to these interactions over and over again.

Would you be able to put up some kind of sign that says or implies “Do Not Disturb” you? You could maybe work in some kind of cute comment or joke about the copier to soften it a little, though that might just prompt people talk to you about the sign...
posted by Ryon at 3:17 PM on February 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Anyway, I think the straightforward way to decline the chitchat is to just gently cut them off with “hey, I really need to get back to [work I’m doing], but good luck with [boring photocopy problem], nice seeing you, take care!” and then turn around if necessary. Repeated often enough, this will give some people the hint.
posted by Ryon at 3:23 PM on February 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

I don't know what the culture is at your school, but perhaps you can take a mildly cheeky/humorous approach...

Put a whiteboard up next to the photocopier. Then put a picture of yourself next to it drawn over with a pirate hat, mustache, chef hat with a note to say, that while VirginiaPlain is unable to address copier issues, their stand-in Captain/Chef/ PirginiaVlain is happy to hear your comments and they should be left on the whiteboard.

That might get the point across while giving people a chuckle.
posted by brookeb at 3:27 PM on February 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Is there ANY kind of over ear headphone that wouldn’t bother you - and that you could wear OVER your airpods?
I used to work in an open-concept office and needed to signal “Leave me alone”. I discovered that I actually like the feeling of big yellow construction worker ear muffs. They were light plastic, no cord to tickle me, and they weren’t too tight or heavy - which I wore over my small earbuds.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 3:28 PM on February 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

the furniture can't be arranged and I *am* facing away from the photocopier! So, most people are talking to me as I'm facing AWAY from them. It's weird!!

In your position I'd be looking for noise-cancelling ear buds that work well enough that I genuinely couldn't hear anybody using the photocopier behind me. That way, the only way to get my attention would be to walk away from the photocopier and enter my line of sight.

I'd also practise reacting to people who do walk away from the photocopier and approach me with genuine welcoming interest, making a little show of popping one earbud out as I acknowledge them, to offset what might otherwise grow into a reputation for rudeness.

And because I'm personally not comfortable putting myself in a position where I can be sneaked up on unawares, I'd put something unobtrusive, curved and shiny (perhaps a snowglobe?) in front of me, just to give my peripheral vision a chance to sense people coming and going behind without actually being able to see who they are.
posted by flabdablet at 3:29 PM on February 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

I used to work with a woman that had long hair and used small earbuds. It was a slightly different situation because she needed to be available to people who came by her desk, where it sounds like you don’t, but a similar situation could work. She had a sign where people would easily see it on her desk that stated in a friendly way that she was wearing headphones and not ignoring you, and to tap her on the shoulder or something to that effect. I probably wouldn’t put the tap on shoulder bit, but you could have something similar that says you’re not ignoring anyone, wearing headphones, and… Something else. I don’t think the people you’re describing would necessarily tap you on the shoulder after seeing the sign, but probably best not to straight out invite it.
posted by sillysally at 3:31 PM on February 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

I've got a pair of over ear bose headphones. They are lightweight, don't block noise, but are big and VERY OBVIOUS. You have to make a big show of de-headphoning.

I used to work in the main thoroughfare of the office and this is the #1 most effective way that I have found to cut the chitchat. Sometimes I would wear them not plugged into anything, just as a talisman to ward off the bored.
posted by phunniemee at 3:32 PM on February 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: My dislike of over the ear headphones is just a personal preference. I've never liked over-ear headphones. They're really not an option for me due to that.

I'd really just like something to say to them, instead of getting giant headphones that I'll hate.
posted by VirginiaPlain at 3:50 PM on February 16, 2021

Say you're busy, on a deadline, whatever. If you sound like a broken record, that's OK; they will realize how often they actually break in on your work day. You can sugar-coat it in ways that have been suggested above-- nice to see you, etc.-- but you are busy.
posted by BibiRose at 3:54 PM on February 16, 2021 [6 favorites]

Isn't exposure to toner fumes/dust considered possibly unhealthy? Perhaps you can recently have become aware of this, become highly concerned about it and lobby to have either your workstation or the copier relocated. People might think you're a bit of a crackpot, but people have received workplace accommodations for sillier reasons.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 4:07 PM on February 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

I would just tape a sign to my seatback that said "Please do not disturb"
posted by tristeza at 4:16 PM on February 16, 2021 [10 favorites]

I think you might be contending on two fronts - against the "I must emote to an audience" people, and the "gosh, someone's in the room, must not be rude" people. They may require different approaches.

Here is an offbeat idea: use Google Forms to make up a survey questionnaire and call it something like the "Printer User Satisfaction Survey." Post a QR Code or a short link, very prominently right at eye level, with pretty pictures and colors. If management asks, tell them about all the complaints you've been hearing. Any actual complaints, just point to it.

Otherwise: "Hey, how's it going? Well, I'd better let you get on with it. This report's not going to write itself."

Oh, and a collection of some funny cartoons also (like you would see on some store counters).
posted by dum spiro spero at 4:20 PM on February 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

“Ha. Well, I’ll let you get back to it” then turning away works for me and it maintains the polite fiction that you’re concerned about taking their time.
posted by kapers at 4:26 PM on February 16, 2021 [19 favorites]

I would remain quiet unless someone asks you a question or requires a response. You can't control that they are complaining but you can breathe through it and use their complaining as a mindfulness practice so to speak. Notice how you feel when they start speaking. Practice noticing and breathing and you might get to a point where you can allow whatever they say without putting a label on it as bad -- allow them to complain without reacting or taking it personally. Eventually you might have neutrality or even compassion for their complaining.

You know their complaining has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. Try to ignore as best as you can. Perhaps you might say something benign like "oh no"if you feel they are needing a response and then get back to your work. Still know that you don't have to do or say or think anything . When you are aware it can allow for others to notice when they are not so aware.
posted by loveandhappiness at 4:29 PM on February 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

I think the key here is to react genuinely kindly but minimally. Let's say someone is ranting and looks at you wanting some sort of acknowledgment. I'd give them a kind, shrugging sort of smile but not say a word and not take my headphones out. Then, if they try again, pull out the headphones slowly with effort and make them repeat themselves - something along the lines of, "sorry, what was that?"... in a tone that is innocent and curious, but ultimately makes it clear and obvious that you weren't previously listening. Now the weight is on them to figure out how to not feel like they are interrupting or imposing, which will be less comfortable for the person talking to you because now they are more explicitly soliciting your attention. They key here is to be truly nice about it, but really give them very little. That will make the interaction less enjoyable for them but not offensive.

Something else that may be in play - they may be talking to you because they themselves feel awkward that you are nearby - this is especially true if they are having printer issues. They are probably self-conscious assuming you think they can't use a printer or something, and they are trying to alleviate their embarrassment. Having a tech malfunction in public is a fairly normal thing to feel self-conscious about even if it's usually totally out of your control, which leads us back to being kind but disengaged. The less noticed they feel, the better.

There's no guarantee that some people won't still decide you are rude, but they will probably be in the small minority if it all because realistically most of these people are only talking to you based on proximity. They don't actually need your feedback or care that much, and anything they are doing to get your attention has nothing to do with you specifically.
posted by amycup at 4:48 PM on February 16, 2021 [7 favorites]

Ignore all remarks unless they are specifically addressed to you. Most people think THEY'RE being rude by not acknowledging your presence in the room; they don't necessarily even want to have a conversation.

If people do address you specifically, say "sorry, on a deadline here" then smile, make a "whatareyagonnado" face, and don't engage again.
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:59 PM on February 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

This answer to a letter on Ask a Manager is about being asked to fix the printer/copier when you sit near it, but I think the same principles apply, and some of the wording/body language could help, especially "sorry, I'm in the middle of something" and "look really distracted when you say this — slowly pull your eyes away from your computer screen as if you’re right in the middle of something that they’re interrupting".
posted by CiaoMela at 5:23 PM on February 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Talk to your boss and firmly request a seat farther away from the copier. Say that it's interfering with your work. Find a different place to sit and say "I should sit there."
posted by ovvl at 6:16 PM on February 16, 2021 [9 favorites]

I am somewhat hard of hearing. I can sometimes use it to my advantage. Even when I do hear certain people at certain times, I simply do not react. I act as if I am focusing on whatever it is I am doing and I DO NOT turn my head, DO NOT say "What?" or anything at all. Even if they say, "Hey August..." I ignore until they do it two or three times. Then, if what they have to tell me is not earth shattering, I simply smile or say, "good luck with that", or "wish I could help, but I am deep into this work thing and need to finish it. Sorry." Then turn away.

The issue is consistency. I think you either have to almost never respond or stop to chat even if you are not so busy or always stop to chat which seems unacceptable. Train those who come by that when you are at your desk working, no time for non work related chat. Sorry.

I might also simply quietly unplug the machine when I arrived in the morning. Then put an "out of order, service called" notice on the machine. That way no one can send jobs to it if it is powered off and not on the network. People who come will walk away pissed, but so what.

I would also see if the machine could be moved to another location.
posted by AugustWest at 6:18 PM on February 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

With the increasing spread of more infectious COVID strains, I’d probably be wearing a mask if I was working in an office. A mask could discourage some conversation in addition to providing better protection from COVID.

I also like ovvl’s suggestion of asking your boss to be seated farther away. You could use COVID as an excuse. It’s safer to sit farther away from places where people congregate, in your case the photocopier.

If you can’t move, ask to have a barrier added for better COVID protection. Even a transparent barrier will likely discourage conversation.
posted by mundo at 6:26 PM on February 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Until COVID sent me home, for the past four? five? years my cubicle has been across from the kitchenette door, between the two bathrooms. Just before the elevator. And just past the stairs. Totally brutal: I did not have five minutes in a row without interruption by someone friendly and well-meaning in all those years.

My desk faced away from the entrance and still they would slap the cubicle wall or cough or lean into my peripheral vision like they didn't know what "boundaries" are. Nice folks, but... UGH.

The only thing that stopped the chatter was large, visible headphones. If they had not worked, my last, desperate plan was a sign reading "WORKING" on the back of my seat....which probably wouldn't have worked. :7(
posted by wenestvedt at 7:05 PM on February 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

I also usually wear a pair of Airpods and listen to music/podcasts. I have long hair, by try to have hair tucked back behind one ear so they can see them. This does nothing to stop chit chat.

Every time - and I mean every time - someone talks to you make a very obvious deal of taking out your airpods, looking at the person, and saying "I'm sorry, what?" When they repeat the sentence give a simple reply then make a obvious deal of putting them back in.
Sooner or later they'll get the hint.
posted by bowmaniac at 7:24 PM on February 16, 2021 [11 favorites]

I used to wear visible headphones at work when I was doing something that required concentration, and my experience is that people would _preferentially_ interrupt me, I guess because they thought I was doing something recreational or not serious? This is even though I would not hear them until they repeated themselves or waved, and would make a production of taking off the headphones and looking disconcerted.

I'm not sure there's anything you can say to individual people that at least some of them won't take as rude. I might ask your boss if they could make an announcement to everyone (via email or whatever) that the copier area is a work space, so they need to be quiet there, backed up with some sort of "Quiet Zone" type sign on the wall over the device.
posted by LadyOscar at 7:33 PM on February 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

A polite way to decline any chit chat is to be honest, and just say "I'd love to chat, but I have to (DO THIS THING NOW), sorry, good luck with the copier."

But I gotta say, the minute you start talking to them at all you are signalling that you have time to talk. Even just a little bit. I mean you just talked to them, yeah? Surely you can spare them two seconds to listen to their rant?

Re-consider what you think is being impolite. Setting clear boundaries around acceptable behaviour with regards to your work is not rude. They are being impolite, not you - they have interrupted you to have a rant. Any response to that imposition must be considered in that light. You don't have to be people pleasing here. Just tell em you're busy. Quickly and efficiently, so you don't waste their time. You can't control how they respond from there, and frankly they've already shown they don't care particularly about how you feel. Especially people who interrupt you repeatedly. You need to calibrate your idea of politeness to their behaviour.

I'd also aggressively seek out a divider or partition of some sort to clearly demarcate your workspace. Put a plant in it or whatever it takes to show that your space is yours, and a work area. Even a rug with a clear border may help.
posted by Jilder at 8:07 PM on February 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

This doesn't strike me all as "chit chat". Instead, the copier-related talk comes across as "this is the person stationed close to the copier, therefore, they are the party responsible for the copier that I should go to for help and maintenance issues regarding it".

As for the complaints about the students... honestly, that should be shut down, hard. 1000x more so if it's about specific students. Or they need a new job.
posted by stormyteal at 10:03 PM on February 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

A row of desks in my office beside one of the printers had a sign that said "Can't talk. Working! Sorry!"

They still occasionally talked to people, but it was a pretty obvious statement.
posted by knapah at 12:32 AM on February 17, 2021 [5 favorites]

I will say, sometimes coming into someone else's workspace to do a task unrelated to them, it feels rude not to acknowledge them. I think you'll have good luck figuring out how to acknowledge their presence without engaging in conversation unless they're there to talk to you. So stay focused on what you're doing and require them to get your attention if they want it.

Bowmaniac's suggestion--to take your airpod out EACH time they talk and make them repeat it is a great one. It can work without the earbuds, too--you are so focused you didn't realize they were talking to you, and their speech startled you a bit. Sorry, what did they say? Oh, huh, yeah, copies. And then you're back at work, fully immersed, and the next thing they say is also distracting.

Some of them are trying to be polite by acknowledging you; after a smile, make ignoring each other a more polite experience.
posted by gideonfrog at 5:36 AM on February 17, 2021 [4 favorites]

tl;dr: "Oh, sorry, I didn't hear that -- did you need something?" is the standard work response for this.

I'd really just like something to say to them, instead of getting giant headphones that I'll hate.

Ignore unless they try to get your attention (talking doesn't count if it's something you're uninterested in); if they do try to get your attention, gesture to your earphones; if they keep going, they are rude -- then take your earphones out, but take your time, and say "oh, sorry, I didn't catch that -- did you need something?" They don't need anything, of course, but you asking indicates that the only appropriate conversation is one that is work-related.

If they persist after all of this, nod and get up and when they give you time to talk (if they do) say you're going to grab some water/go to the bathroom and walk off. If they don't give you a chance to talk, just walk off, maybe throw a "good luck" in there.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 2:11 PM on February 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

Coming late to the party.

I had a workstation just inside a door to another large room. Basically I was by the hall to the large room. There was a giant glass window that overlooked the hall. Like the person above, there wasn't 5 minutes in 5 years when someone wasn't talking to me, or trying to talk to me. I tried turning the computer around, so they saw my back as they came in. Tried putting large plants on the counter (so they wouldn't smack it as they came in). They said hi, they sighed, they yelled to someone far away in the room, they coughed. They hung all over my counter (before plants) like it was a bar.

I finally told my boss, "I can't focus on my work." Apparently those were the magic words. She found me a storeroom with a door I could shut and lock.

It was heaven.
posted by Rumi'sLeftSock at 6:28 PM on February 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

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