Ever notice how coworkers start conversations with you right when you’re getting into the zone of productivity?
Just as I’m ready to dive into a project, tackle that long list of unread emails, and prep for a meeting—coworkers want to have a chat. Yes, I saw the ballgame last night. No I didn’t watch The Voice finale. No, I still haven’t checked out that podcast you recommended two months ago.
At one recent job, my co-workers debated for hours about whether a hot dog is, or is not classified as a sandwich. I’m all for socializing at work but time-wasters like these can really suck the productivity out of my day.
“When employees get co-opted into these conversations, they end up staying late or coming in early because that’s when they have uninterrupted time to get work done,” said Dr. Alan Cavaiola, Monmouth University professor and co-author of Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job. “It’s now extending the work day which is unfortunate.”
Caviola surveyed 1,110 employees, finding that approximately 80% reported moderate to severe stress due to a difficult coworker or boss. In that research, he asked people to check off the character traits of people they find stressful. Lo and behold, they clustered around common personality disorders like narcissistic, borderline, paranoid and antisocial personalities. People who may have those tendencies “feel entitled and think nothing of barging into your space and chatting away, figuring you’re going to appreciate the time they’re giving to you,” said Cavaiola. “You probably also have people that see work as their social outlet. Maybe they don’t have a big social life or they live alone, so they really see work as a way of interacting with people socially.”
Open offices have only exacerbated this trend, says Michael Kerr, business consultant and author of The Humor Advantage. He recalls the story of a friend who’s company recently moved to an open office—and the constant interruptions made him miserable.
“He’s conscious of not making eye contact with people because he doesn’t want anyone to engage with him when he’s trying to get something done,” said Kerr. “He keeps his head literally down and avoids eye contact with people. It’s the same advice we give to people who run into grizzly bears in the wild ironically.”
It got me thinking, how can people get out of distracting work conversations without seeming like… well, like a jerk?
10 Ways to Politely Shut Down Office Conversations
- Have a catchphrase. Whenever I don’t want to be bothered at work, I say: “I’m in deep right now.” Another good one is “I’ll get back to you on that. I have to get this done right now.” Having a stock phrase will help you get the message across, fast. “It’s a gentle way of saying ‘I can’t chit chat about American Idol right now,’” said Cavaiola.
- Wear headphones. Only a maniac employer won’t let you wear headphones these days, and it’s becoming a clear sign that you’re not available to talk.
- Put chats like Slack on “do not disturb” mode. People can also bother you in the virtual world! Make sure you’re not getting sucked into the Slack black hole about last night’s episode of The Walking Dead.
- Don’t engage in the beginning. Maybe you think that you can pop in, offer your salient point about the ballgame then quickly duck out. My advice, save it. “Don’t be tempted to put your two cents in,” said Cavaiola. “It could end up being a lengthy conversation.”
- Explain yourself. Be explicit about why you can’t chat right now. I would love to talk, but have to send three emails and write up a new report before lunch. That should get you off the hook.
- Out of Sight, Out of Mind. A well-designed office provides a variety of environments to sit down and work—not just rows of desks. Avoiding distracting conversations can be as simple as hiding out in some corner of the office where you can stay focused.
- Turn the tables on them. When they ask about the World Series or mid-term elections, wait for a lul in the conversation and them ask them a question about work. “You can say ‘boy this is going to be a crazy day. Did you hear anything on the Smith account?’ You’re segueing them into talking about work, but that’s the reason you’re here,” said Lynn Taylor, author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant.
- Add a physical sign to your desk. Make a fun sign that says, basically, “I’m busy.” Maybe that’s a play on a dishwasher sign and rather than “clean/dirty” you write “busy/free.” Or you create a fun play on a hotel’s “Do Not Disturb” sign. In any case, it should get the message across to buzz off.
- Invite the talkers to create solutions. Figure out a good time to have a non-threatening chat with the people who annoy you. Start out by asking what you do that annoys them (even if you’ve got to grit your teeth doing it.) “Establish a rough schedule determining certain quiet times during the day and other times when you should be free to chat,” said Taylor. “That way, they’re invested in the solution rather than you simply demanding that they change their behavior.”
- Escape! When in doubt, get the heck out of there. Any boss worth working for will have no problem with letting an employee work from home or a coffee shop if it means they’ll actually be productive. Tell your manager you need some focused time to work and head for wherever it is you get your best work done.