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I work in an open plan office where there are 4 people to each bank of desks

The lady who sits diagonally behind me will turn round and ‘stare into’ absolutely every conversation that I have with a visitor to my desk be it work related or personal (banter, what was on TV, sports etc). She also does this to the colleague who sits next to me, and especially when the two of us are having conversations. She very very rarely contributes to the conversation, just listens and stares but will occasionally make some unfunny joke to try and shoehorn her way in.

NOTE: none of these conversations are in any way private or sensitive, either from a work or personal point of view

She is someone who would not take criticism or confrontation very well so how should I deal with this? Everyone seems to know it goes on but no-one really confronts her on it (she has been at this place for many years prior to me joining and I have only been sitting in this position for the past 7 or 8 months)

I am finding it more and more distracting. I’ve stopped myself a few times from spinning round and just snapping back with a ‘YES? CAN I HELP YOU?????'

Should I speak to management regarding this rather than confront her directly? Moving desks is not an option for me sadly.

marked as duplicate by IDrinkandIKnowThings, gnat, JB King, Michael Grubey, mcknz Nov 16 '15 at 23:16

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    I think saying anything would be overreacting. Just suck it up and let it go. – David K Nov 16 '15 at 18:32
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    I think you are going to have to live with it. It is just her personality, and she probably doesn't mean any harm. Maybe always been socially awkward, who knows. Saying something will probably make the whole thing explode in your face. – Dan Shaffer Nov 16 '15 at 19:41
  • The "duplicate" suggestion on this question is not really a duplicate. It's related though. – Brandin Nov 17 '15 at 10:05
  • I read this and immediately thought 'that's me!'. I'm fairly quiet and often find it tough to make conversation with colleagues so I'll sometimes feel like I'm part of a conversation and chip in with the odd comment, when in reality I'm probably not and sometimes find myself staring. I hope I'm wrong though, I'm worried I'm the annoying guy in my office now! :( – Adam44 Nov 17 '15 at 12:43
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The sad truth is that she is going to have far more political capital in the company than you, so you shouldn't make this a management issue - it's too trivial an issue, and you will be seen as a troublemaker, or childish.

Because of the nature of your conversation (not personal), and since the floor plan is open-floor she may feel as if listening in/jumping in is appropriate. Clearly it makes you feel uncomfortable, especially if she simply stares, without actually saying anything.

That really can only mean one of 3 things:

  1. She either feels left out/ is lonely
  2. She is giving you a hint to stop talking
  3. She simply enjoys making you feel uncomfortable and watching you squirm.

There are ways to discourage her, or change her behavior, you just have to be patient and work at it for a little while.

The next time she's staring at you politely ask her if you can help her. Simply turn from the person you're speaking with, look her dead in the eye, and without any frustration, or anger say something along the lines of:

  • insert name here, I can see you are following our conversation. Did you want to jump in?

  • Excuse us, insert name here, are we bothering you?

These lines have the advantage of putting the onus on her to justify her behaviour. Her response will determine how you must steer the conversation from there.

a) If she's simply lonely, try to include her into some conversations some of the time. Maybe even engineer some conversations purely for her sake. It's worth getting her on your side, if she stops bugging you the rest of the time.

b) If she responds in a nasty, or mean way, saying something to the effect that "the rest of us here are working, you know", then you may want to consider your own actions. Do other people around you talk as much as you do? Are they as loud?

If you're not the problem, and she's being nasty for no good reason (maybe she does it too, or is even louder), then reply along the lines of:

We didn't mean to disturb you. Perhaps you could be a little more understanding, it's just the nature of the office design that our conversation isn't more private.

c) If she's simply enjoying making you feel miserable, then simply call her on it. Every time she stares, ask if you can help her. If she makes a tasteless comment, put her on the spot:

  • I really don't know what to say to that.

  • I'm not sure the office is a place for that sort of comment.

If you "stay classy", you will garner everyone else's support. If an issue eventually does reach the manager, you will have others be able to testify that you acted professional and courteous at all times.

However, if you are going to chat about TV shows, and sport's matches, maybe get up and walk over to the water cooler? Or reserve those conversations for when you're waiting around the coffee machine?

Chances are that if this conversation reaches your manager she might be able to say that you waste time talking / are disruptive, and have a case for it. The manager will always tend to want to get this type of person out of their hair and simply reprimand you.

If, however, you remain polite and she continues her behaviour, THEN you have a case for approaching the manager, describing the situation, and asking for an intervention:

Boss, I want to bring something to your attention that I was hoping I would be able to deal with myself. I know that the open-floor design doesn't afford people a lot of privacy, and I'm ok with that, however I've been encountering some situations that make me very uncomfortable, and have been persisting over a long period of time. Whenever someone stops over at my desk to give me some files, or say hello (always say the work related version first), insert name here turns around and stares at us. I typically make sure that if I'm having a private conversation I restrict it to around the water cooler, or the coffee machine, so I don't feel that I'm being very disruptive. I tried to defuse the situations by trying to include her into the conversations, or asking if we are bothering her, but she just makes petty, mean comments, that I feel are inappropriate. etc etc etc.

Good luck.

  • Exactly. How would you say that to the boss? "When I'm wasting time talking about TV shows, Mrs. XYZ won't stop listening in". And as you mentioned, if she does it to everyone, then she knows where the bodies are burrowed, so to speak. Lot more political capitol – Dan Shaffer Nov 16 '15 at 19:46
  • @Dan - Yup. That's why the situation must first be either defused, or twisted such that she is in the wrong. If the OP is not typically "chatting" at his desk, then there's no explanation for her behavior other than being rude. Also helps to thrown in HR buzz words like "uncomfortable" and "inappropriate", etc. It's all about politics, and putting yourself in a good light. – AndreiROM Nov 16 '15 at 19:50
  • Is adding a white board on rollers to your space feasible in your area? (I had one that I positioned behind me as a door when I was in an open floor plan environment.) What about asking if the white noise in your space be turned up, because you sense that surrounding conversations make it difficult for this person to focus on her work. – LexieLou Nov 16 '15 at 20:39
  • @LexieLou - I think a lot of people would see that as passive aggressive, and also that it would be a bit of a political issue for someone to get "more privacy" than others. Idk. Up to the OP. He can always update us as to how it works out. – AndreiROM Nov 16 '15 at 20:51
  • I never thought of it as passive-aggressive. We ended up with vertical white boards on rollers all over the floor. They were great for diagraming projects, posting timelines, and team building with "question of the day." I think people are often nosy in open spaces because they are distracted by what's going on around them. – LexieLou Nov 16 '15 at 20:59
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This is a harmless situation, it takes all sorts of people to make up the World, this is one sort. I see no reason to antagonise her. If she's been doing it for 8 months I'm surprised you're not used to it. It's a small environment so she can't help but overhear conversations. She might seem to be taking more interest than necessary, but she probably regards you guys as friends and part of her team.

I would assume that and act accordingly, we all compromise to get on with other people especially in confined spaces. A friendly(ish) little workspace is FAR preferable to one that is not.

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