General Question

figbash's avatar

Office etiquette for an extremely nosy co-worker?

Asked by figbash (7448points) November 19th, 2007

We work in a relatively open work environment and sometimes this co-worker can hear both my personal and professional conversations that do not involve her. Later, she comments on them.

For example, when I recently called a store to confirm shipment on a coat I had ordered, she approached me three days later and said” so, I was hoping to see your new coat! you didn’t wear it today!” I had never even discussed it with her.

This has happened multiple times and I find it really offensive. I can close my office door for personal calls, but she still comments on my phone calls and conversations with other office staff. How do I tell her to stop it, without damaging a good working relationship?

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13 Answers

sjg102379's avatar

There’s no way that you can say anything without risking her feeling insulted or hurt, simply because you can’t control how she’s going to react. But it’s worth the risk to try to fix a situation that clearly is not working for you, because clearly this has become an untenable situation. Use “I” statements to make it less about her and more about you, and also suggest some changes that you can make. Something along the lines of, “I’ve noticed that due to the way that the office is set up, you can’t help but overhear my conversations. It’s really difficult for me to stay focused on phone calls when I know that someone else is listening to them because I get distracting thinking about how it sounds from the outside. I can shut the door for private calls, but can we please agree not to dissect my work-related phone calls together?”

gailcalled's avatar

Or, perhaps try joking. “Boy, you must have really good hearing.”

Her behavior IS offensive; the fact that she doesn’t realize it means that it will be very difficult to fix. Sjg’s suggestions about “I” statements is perfect counselling advice.

Jill_E's avatar

Ditto on the above great suggestions from sjg and gailcalled.

Next time, if she makes a comment on a new purchase or personal related info. Maybe say something in the line of “Oh my, was there a fly named (coworker’s name) in my office” or something like that.

sjg102379's avatar

I personally am not pro-joking, because I think that it’s a really passive-aggressive way of acknowledging that something bothers you and also allows the other person to ignore it. I think as an adult, it’s better to be honest and direct.

osakarob's avatar

Wouldn’t the only realistic way to stop her snooping be to simply WORK at work?
Save the personal calls for your personal time.

Perchik's avatar

@osaka – I’ve worked in offices for years, and there’s always some kind of personal work being done. Most of it comes down to things that have to be done during business hours. If a doctors office is only open during business hours, and you work 8–5, you pretty much have to make a personal call during business hours. From what I’ve seen in offices, it’s pretty common for people to take care of personal stuff during business hours, if it doesn’t effect their work.

syz's avatar

I’ve found that white noise helps – I put a radio in the area outside my office and keep it tuned to an inoffensive station (usually classical music) at a low volume. It makes it harder to coworkers to listen in on my conversations.

figbash's avatar

@ osaka- uhm, of course but Perchik is right and even generic calls that need to be made during business hours, as well as conversations of a work nature are commented on. I’m salaried and I bust my ass at work. I reserve the right to make phone calls re: the logistics of my life, if I’m not able to be home to do them. She also asks probing questions about everything in general.

Yesterday I hung up from a call with an insurance company. I walked out to get some water and she commented on what a hard time she has dealing with that insurance co. The conversation did not involve her and she had to have been completely ignoring her own work, simply to listen to mine. She also asks probing questions about my personal life -when she asked me where I live, and I gave her a general answer, she asked for the cross streets!

jca's avatar

@osaka – i couldn’t imagine telling my boss i am going to be a little late because i am going to stay home to make a phone call, or i am taking the day off to handle some personal calls. it’s not just that “everyone does it” but that if you do it sparingly it’s not a big deal to do it a work, especially if you don’t take breaks (or don’t take them too long or too often).

as for the dilemma of how to handle our nosy coworker, here are some other suggestions: try to make personal calls when she’s out at lunch, or otherwise away from her desk. you could also go outside or in hallway and call on your cell phone. if you do make or receive calls and she asks or comments on your conversations, you could try asking “why do you ask that?” that would force her to say she happened to overhear your conversation, and then you could tell her very nicely that you don’t comment on her personal goings-on, and you don’t expect her to comment on yours. you do risk turning your otherwise good working relationship sour. you could also try telling some people you’re on phone with that you’ll “discuss this another time” and say that you have some coworkers who find your life very fascinating. hopefully she’ll hear and get the hint….

nyabinghidrums's avatar

That is a tad bit rude for that person to be listening in. There are times at work when I’ve dealt with that before as well and I tried a couple things that ended up working out pretty well.

1.) I spoke at a low level on the phone, usually if its business like a coat, etc. then the person will listen up to you and catch what you’re saying. I wouldn’t whisper, but just keep the voice to a low and it makes it tough for people to pick up on.

2.) Eventually I received a ‘cube mate’ where I worked and instead of making personal calls on the side I collect a list of things I may have to do personally on the phone and I’ll make those calls from my car on break so that way I avoid the person all together.

Hope that was of some help.

andersue's avatar

Here’s a thought from the “other person”. Not about phone conversations, but in-person conversations. We have a reception area that’s in the center of our offices. I’ve been accused of listening in on people’s conversations – the private conversations are held in this public area with the receptionist and there’s no way around walking in on them. Particularly if you have work to do with the receptionist, at the copier, etc. I really do not care to know their personal business, but if it’s possibly a general conversation, I wait a minute to see if I can join in. What am I doing wrong? The antagonism in the office toward me is very uncomfortable.

baby123's avatar

Just joke and say ” you need to get a job with the KGB because you have some bionic ears, because I never said anything to you about that” or ask ” how did you know about that?!!” wait and let her answer because it would force her to own up to eavesdropping and then add ” are you bugging my phone?”

waynerrr's avatar

intrusive & nosy people, asking personal questions:-

Most nosy people are unhappy or dissatisfied with their own lives. There is often a real void in their lives and they have to fill it with the lives and events of others, Quite sad really!

There are many strategies that you could try!

Here are some : -

You need to Practise them

1) Keep Pushing back the question to them (e.g. Q – “what are you doing this weekend?” A- “not sure, what are you doing?)

2) Answer questions briefly, with no explanation., avoid definite YES and NO answers. Do not “close” or “finish” questions”. This will stop more questions coming and you will not be feeding the problem. Instead use humor, Vagueness, avoidance without divulging any real information. The person will give up when they realize they aren’t getting proper answers.

Q) “are you going away?” A) not sure, don’t know, be great if we could (AVOIDANCE, VAGUENESS)
Q) “are you dating anyone” A) we all need somebody (AVOIDANCE), why have you got someone for me (HUMOUR), lines of them (HUMOUR)
Q) “have you received any offers on your house” A) I leave it to the my husband, estate agents (AVOIDANCE), Its still on the market (AVOIDANCE)
Q) “Is that a brand new car” – It’s a lovely model (AVOIDANCE), i fell in love with the colour
Q) are you working? A) all the time Q) where are you working? A) there’s so much to do all the time Q) so what do you do Q) I do many things, i’ve got many skills (AVOIDANCE AVOIDANCE AVOIDANCE)
Q) “Have you put on weight?” Answer: “well, i can’t see the scales anymore” (HUMOUR)

Avoid replies like: “thats a good question” as this encourages them to ask more personal questions.

3) Distraction,excuse or Change the subject immediately and Talk about something else. Q) “How much is your mortgage”? A) could you excuse me a second, my phone is ringing or I can’t talk right now i’m in a rush, or ouch! my stomach… cramps! (anything really have a few ideas prepared).

** IN EVERYTHING HERE YOU ARE SUBTLY SENDING THE MESSAGES THAT YOU ARE NOT PREPARED TO ANSWER PERSONAL QUESTIONS ( the other person may have not been aware that they were being nosy and you have helped them)

4) Send subtle (disapproving) verbal and body language messages, to show show that you are not happy with the questions.
– Mumble, talk quieter and make it hard for the person to hear what you are saying
– ....use (mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm), (yeeeeesssssss( ohhh well!) ..... as if you are thinking about the question (the silence will be equally uncomfortable for them)...then change the subject.
– home in on one of the words and then answer a similar but different question (it will sound like you mis-heared them) e.g how long have you been trying for a BABY A) I know BABY’s are so cute and cuddly). They may repeat the question but that would show how stupid and unobservant they are.
– Just talk nonsense (e.g Q – Are you in debt? A) oh yes, i came out of the house this morning and could’t get the car started
– give the school-kid treatment “Nothing”. What have you done at school today “Nothing”, what did you have for lunch “Nothing”.

Body language:
– Use all the facial expressions that you can think of to show disapproval.

If you feel that you must be truthful
Then keep your answers short and vague. I wouldn’t say anything that sounds like your showing off or that things are better than they are. (The main cause of nosiness is that the person is unhappy with their lives)

Other things to bear in mind
-You may have to temporarily avoid the person If the nosiness is unbearable. But don’t make the avoidance obvious. It’s more about letting the other person know that you are a private person.

-If you can’t avoid the person then keep the encounter short & polite (as you do not wish to hold a “dislike” or “hate” to the person). Keep optimistic that the person can change.

- model the correct behavior to the other person (i.e. don’t ask intrusive questions to them). Ask gentle /unassuming questions (e.g. nice whether, nice day, oh nice to see the kids out playing etc.

Last resort
If the person’s fails to understand your the subtle hints then you may have to be more direct and blunt, but try not to be rude. don’t embarrass them , make them feel stupid or put them down

Here’s some Lat Resort replies (when you have just about had enough): -

“No comment”
“secret information”, i’d have to kill you (HUMOUR)
“That’s a personal matter”
“now theres a question, do i have to answer that?”
“that’s private”
“please, you are making me feel uncomfortable”

4) No matter how tempted you are to overreact, don’t do it. The idea is to stay in control of the situation. As soon as you start getting defensive or going on the attack, you are no longer in charge

All this will take practice and trial and error. Don’t worry if you mess-up. Go through each situation after the event and sort out what you should have done & what you will do next time. Before long things will become more and more automatic


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