How to Fend Off Nosy Coworkers

Unless you work alone for your whole career, you’re likely to run into nosy coworkers who want more information about your private life than you’re comfortable sharing. If you read last month’s post about the nosiest of nosy coworkers, you know that some people can be remarkably persistent when they want details about your love life, your reproductive choices, your salary, or other personal topics.

If you’re look for ways to shut down these types of intrusions in the workplace while still keeping the peace, the most important thing you can do is to get clear in your mind about the fact that you aren’t obligated to share personal details when you don’t want to. People often resist shutting down inappropriate boundary-violators because they don’t want to feel rude. It’s helpful to remember that the boundary-violator is the rude one, not you – all you’re doing is politely but firmly declining to share overly personal information.

So what do you say to coworkers who press you to share details that you’d rather not divulge? If someone doesn’t get your first few hints, it’s time to be direct! It’s okay to simply explain, nicely, that a particular topic is off-limits. For instance, you could use lines like these:

  • “That’s awfully personal!”
  • “I’m pretty private, actually, and would rather not talk about my dating life.”
  • “I’d rather not get into it at work – I like to keep that type of thing private.”
  • “Please don’t ask me personal questions like that.”
  • “That’s between me and my husband/wife/accountant.”
  • “I’m not comfortable talking about that.”

These lines will be enough to shut down most nosiness. But occasionally you might run into someone who isn’t cowed by being nicely signaled that a subject is off-limits. If that happens, you’ll have to get more direct and more firm. For instance, if your coworker is badgering you about when you’re planning to get pregnant, you might say, “Jane, please stop asking me that. It’s inappropriate and it’s making me uncomfortable.” Direct? Yes. But again, remember that the other person is the one who has been rude and crossed normal lines of courtesy. You’re simply asserting that those boundaries do indeed exist and refusing to be pushed into a conversation you’re under no obligation to have.

And if you think you might be your office’s resident busybody, take this as a clarion call to give your coworkers some personal space! They’re far more likely to form the type of close relationship with you where they willingly share personal details if you don’t try to drag those details out of them by force!

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Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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