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My friend Megan has an office stalker. She works at a library in Nashville, where one of her co-workers walks by her desk so frequently that one day, Megan started keeping a tally. “She passed by my cubicle 17 times between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.,” Megan says, “and almost every time she’ll be like, ‘Hi!’ and pop her head in. I can’t stand it.”
If Megan’s surfing the Web, the co-worker will ask what website she’s visiting. Is that a project Megan’s working on? What is that YouTube (GOOG) video? “She’ll point to the screen and ask, ‘Oh, what’s that?’” Megan says. “And I’ll be like, ‘Uh, databases.’”
Megan has tried everything—averting her eyes, pretending to be busy, acting as if she didn’t hear the question—but the co-worker is both oblivious and persistent. Other people in the office have also fallen victim to the woman’s pop-ins and questions. “Every conversation we have about her always starts with: ‘She’s so nice, but …’” Megan says. “There’s always a ‘but.’”
Megan’s problem is a distressingly common one. Every office has at least one nosy co-worker, and they come in a myriad of irritating forms. Laura in New York once had a colleague ask if she was pregnant. (She wasn’t.) Amy in Michigan has a boss who has asked several times how much she weighs. When I was a teenager, working as a Starbucks (SBUX) barista, a woman asked me—in front of other employees and several customers—why my parents were getting divorced.
Henry Alford likes watching people struggle to find a polite way to ask if he is gay. “I’m someone who radiates an ambiguous sexuality, so all my life people have asked me leading questions about my love life,” says Alford, author of Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That, a book that’s less a manners guide than it is a manners rant. “Over the years, I have developed a series of mysterious and ambiguous comments meant to lead people off the scent.” If you don’t want people to know your sexuality at work, Alford suggests saying something stereotypically straight, “and then talk about your handbag collection. It will totally mess with their antennae.”
But why do we have to mess with them to begin with? Don’t they realize what they’re doing, how much social anxiety they’re causing the rest of us as we struggle to figure out the most polite way to ask them to shut up? What is wrong with these people?
“People get very comfortable in a work environment,” explains Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and owner of the Protocol School of Texas. “We spend so much time with our co-workers that we sometimes develop a sense of trust that really isn’t there.” Gottsman is right; when you see someone every day, you often find yourself creating a false sense of intimacy. “It’s not necessarily a negative thing,” says Gottsman, “but if you feel that someone is crossing a boundary, don’t be afraid to put them in their place.”
“Believe me, I’ve tried,” says Tika, who works in a hospital in Southern California. Tika is 31, and although she and her husband have been married for nine years, they don’t have any children. “People at work ask me all the time, when will I have kids?” she says. “I tell them that’s none of their business, but they keep asking.” Eventually, Tika admitted that she didn’t know if she wanted kids. “Then they just asked me how my husband felt about that, if he ‘approved’ of my decision.” One time, she admitted that maybe she’d want to adopt. “I thought that would shut them up but instead the woman I was talking to looked at me and said: ‘There’s nothing like the joy of your own child.’ I stared back at her and said, ‘Well, I wouldn’t know,’ then walked away.”
At other jobs, Tika made friends easily and hung out with her co-workers outside of work. She’s been at her current job for three years, but the constant questioning has made her feel like an outsider. “I don’t know if it’s because they’re older, so they think they can comment on my life like I’m still a kid,” she says. “They even try to tell me what foods to eat.” Tika is very petite and thin, and whenever she eats something healthy, her co-workers say something. “I eat oatmeal every morning. That’s not that strange, right? But someone always talks about it. It’s oatmeal.”
“There are a lot of weird girl politics tied up with what you eat,” my friend Megan says. “If I get breakfast in the morning, there’s a woman here who hops up out of her seat like she’s standing to attention and peers at my food and exclaims, ‘Ooh, what’d you get?’” And I’ll have to say, ‘A muffin.’ Sometimes she’ll comment further and say something like, ‘That looks really filling.’ What the f— does that even mean? Why are you talking about my muffin? Just ignore the fact that I have food.”
Gottsman laughed when I told her this story. “She’s probably just uncomfortable with herself and her diet,” she says. “The next time someone says you’re eating a lot of food, ask what they ate today. Turn it on them.”
Alford takes a different approach. “Pattern yourself after Bartleby, the Scrivener. If you’re asked a question that you don’t want to answer, just say: ‘I would prefer not to.’” Alford says one of his favorite responses is to tell people, “I wish to remain mysterious.” To be fair, that line only works if when you say it, you happen to be wearing a cape.