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At several jobs I've had a colleague that I had to work with who liked to argue over pointless things. It can be very frustrating and time consuming and is never productive, and usually is only tangentially related to work (if at all). How do I talk to this type of individual? I have tried only speaking to them about work related mater but they seem to be experts at going on tangents (for example I ask them to sign a paper and they start talking about how they can't use the pen I hand them because it's the type that doesn't work well).

It can be quite challenging. For example I was warming lunch up on the griddle and he walks up and says "is there oil on that" and I reply "yes" and he says "there shouldn't be" and I ask "why not?" and he says "because it's Teflon".

Also on a virtual machine I occasionally used he over heard me say I have adware (in the sense my google searches get redirected) and now whenever I'm talking to someone else about it he brings up "I ask again, why would you connect to the servers using a compromised virtual machine?".

Should I just ignore these unsolicited remarks? It's hard to know what I can believe him saying, for example I've never heard you shouldn't put cooking oil on something made of Teflon.

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    Is this the same person at all these jobs? – O. Jones Jun 15 '14 at 19:22
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    @OllieJones no, however I've noticed a trend where most offices have someone similar to this. – bobby Jun 15 '14 at 20:56
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    Passive-aggressive approach: whatever he says, answer "You're right" but keep doing what you did. Infuriating. – Agent_L Jun 16 '14 at 15:57
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    on the other hand, why would you connect to the servers using a compromised virtual machine? – njzk2 Jan 8 '15 at 15:26
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    I love the idea that the asker is going around ruining Teflon pans and virtual machines with reckless abandon, perceiving any and all helpful suggestions as uppity bolshevism. – inappropriateCode Sep 9 '16 at 16:12
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Don't respond at all to this stuff. Don't acknowledge it at all. Behave like you didn't hear it. Just mildly make sure he understands your request.

People engage in these kinds of inappropriate dialogs because they want reactions from people. They may think it proves to you that they have good ideas. They may also be doing it in an ineffective attempt to challenge authority.

When he says "this pen is inferior," he's inviting you to a debate about the merits of the pen. If you say, "the pen is fine," to him you're accepting his invitation, rather than just finishing the task at hand. The same is true if you say something to brush off his invitation. So your best course is to say nothing.

Later, if the problem is really out of hand, you can call him on the carpet for his arguing. "When you give me a theoretical argument when I'm trying to get work done, I feel like you're wasting my time and yours. You're doing that a lot. Could you please do it less?" But don't do that in the moment: he'll treat it as acceptance of his invitation to a debate.

If you're his drill sergeant in boot camp, you can say, "wiseacre recruit, give me twenty pushups, then sign the paper!" He will reply "Sir, yes sir!" Other than that, you don't have much choice but to ignore his invitation to argue.

For example

You: Jack, please sign this paper. (Place paper in front of him and hold out pen).

Jack: This is the wrong kind of pen.

You: (continue to hold out pen).

Jack: It's not a NASA-qualified space pen for microgravity.

You: (continue to hold out pen).

Jack: I can't believe you use such inferior office supplies.

You: Please, I need this paper signed now. Thanks.

If you can arrange this sort of thing to happen in public, all the better. Then this guy will feel the body language and incredulous stares of the people around him.

If it's about more substantive things, react the same way.

You: let's load this shipment on the truck.

Jack: these boxes are packed to be a bit heavy.

You: They need to go on the truck.

Jack: we really should use hydrogen-powered trucks.

You: the customer needs the shipment tomorrow. Let's get it loaded.

Jack: or, we could get Tesla Motors to make a line of electric trucks.

You: Come on, pick up these boxes, let's get this done. Thanks.

  • I like this answer and think that it demonstrates how to use the principle well. But it does not explain why not responding to it is the proper course of action. I think the answer would be greatly improved with that explanation. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Jun 16 '14 at 13:31
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    @Chad, I'm surprised at your comment. In the answer I wrote "He's doing it to get a reaction from you. If he doesn't get the reaction he won't keep up the silly behavior." Isn't that an explanation? Or were you hoping for more detail? Thanks! – O. Jones Jun 16 '14 at 13:50
  • Maybe a better way of putting it would be a more detailed explanation of why would greatly improve this answer. Something that explains why some of the other more obvious solutions are less/not effective/advisable would be good as well. Its not that I think you are wrong, but rather that I do not understand why you are right. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Jun 16 '14 at 13:59
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    Don't expect ignoring unwanted behavior to work immediately (few interventions do). You may see an extinction burst which means the behavior may get worse before it gets better. Don't give up. – user8365 Jun 16 '14 at 16:00
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    @OllieJones - Your choice of language is not good. You should use Mandarin Chinese instead so that the majority of the world will understand... ;) – Steam Jul 26 '14 at 15:42
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It takes only one person to say something stupid but it takes two to argue. If one of the parties to an argument is you, what are you doing arguing? If you don't cooperate, there is no argument.

If they start complaining about the pen you provided them so that they can sign, tell them to get their own pen and sign, and that you don't have all day! The rule is, if someone starts an argument with you, you find a way to cut it short. Interrupt if you have to, and don't worry about being perceived as rude - They are already perceiving you in a few negative ways already, so being perceived as rude is no tragedy as long as you get what you want in a timely way.

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