Unserious Advice for the Exceptionally Awkward: The Overbearing Coworker

How do I deal with a deskmate who WON'T STOP TALKING?
Publish date:
October 3, 2011
rudeness, advice, zombies, work etiquette

Dear Lesley,

I'm a socially awkward, 25-year old woman. One could use the word "curmudgeon" to describe me, but I would find that unnecessarily Dickensian in that it could easily replace the name of "Gradgrind" in Hard Times. I prefer to say that I enjoy my alone time, and when I'm forced to make small talk, my brain is taken over with images of stabbing the other conversationalist in the eyeballs due to their lack of interesting material. Perhaps this makes me a sociopath. Or, as I like to think, I've just reached an age where I straight up don't care about the little incidentals of an acquaintance's existence.

Case in point: I'm currently employed at a publishing company as a ghostwriter. A woman with whom I attended graduate school is also employed here as an editor. Though I've known her for the past four years, I have nothing in common with her. She talks incessantly, telling the same three stories over and over again changing the adjectives so it seems like a new story. These stories are: 1. The cockatiel her parents own is neurotic and pulls out his feathers with his beak. 2. Her cat chased something. 3. Once, when she was roommates with her brother, he didn't do the dishes and it made her mad. As you can see, conversations with this woman are typically miserable, and I can't control the rage I feel when she tells me the same thing, only embellished in another way.

My question is how do I avoid this woman when her desk is right next to mine, and if I can't avoid her, how do I prevent her from telling me the same story over and over, thus causing me to explode with rage? And how do I do this without seeming like the office bitch?


The Awkward Sociopath Who Just Wants to Go to Lunch Alone

Dear Sociopath,

Oh, the Chatty Coworker. We’ve all had them, and many of us have been them as well. I have a few coping strategies for you to consider.

Attempt 1: Use nonverbal cues. You have likely been transmitting these without realizing it: avoiding eye contact, responding to everything she says with a dull “hmm” or making stabbing motions with an invisible knife in her direction. (Kidding: Do not make stabbing motions with an invisible knife in her direction.) Sometimes the most effective way of driving a talker back is to simply act as if they are boring you.

Attempt 2: Be really busy. Every time your coworker begins a story, manufacture a reason why it is impossible for you to talk right now. Examples include, “Can this wait? If I don’t recombine this DNA before the zombie virus crosses the Atlantic, the human race is DOOMED!” or “Wish I could talk, but the CIA will assassinate me unless I finish this report by end of business today.” Ideally these excuses will relate to your job, but feel free to embellish.

Attempt 3: Be a passive-aggressive jerk. If your coworker proves resistant to the methods above, you could try feigning ignorance during the more repetitive stories by interrupting with obvious questions and comments: “I didn’t know you had a brother!” “So when did you get a cat? Why haven’t I heard about this before now?” “Where did you go to grad school again?”

Attempt 4: The barrier method. If most of what you do is writing, you may be able to get away with wearing headphones at your desk. In many cases, the presence of headphones alone will deter coworker chatter in your direction, but even if it doesn’t, you don’t have to listen to it. If she is louder than your headphones, you can always let the music move you to singing aloud. Any number of broadway soundtracks or 80s compilations are good for this. “AND I’M HUNGRY LIKE THE WOOOLLLFFFF...”

Attempt 5: Enlist a confederate. Find someone else nearby in the office who is willing to call your phone and bail you out when your colleague gets rolling. Sorry, chatty coworker! I have to answer this totally real phone call about important work stuff.

Attempt 6: Compromise. OK, so this should probably be closer to the top but it’s not as funny as the others. Work out a talking schedule with your coworker by being forthright but non-accusatory: “I enjoy our chats, but they’re so pleasant and diverting they’re affecting my ability to get work done. How about we agree that the hours between 9 and 11 and 3 and 5 are Office Quiet Time? That way we can both do our jobs but still have time set aside to be more social.” This might be the best you can do without involving HR, which is your last resort.

Feeling chronically rage-y at work is a bad deal, so this is an issue that needs addressing post-haste. You’ve obviously got quite the silver tongue on you, Sociopath, so I am confident you’ll find a way to make this work. Best of luck.

Solidarity in Lunching Alone,


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