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What is the most polite way to drop a personal topic with a coworker? I'm fairly new to my job and I'd like to keep my personal life private. Not to seem rude or disrespectful, but I'd rather not talk about my boyfriend &/or my life outside of work. How can I leave a question when someone is getting too nosey? One coworker found out I had a boyfriend but since we have been dating for a few years and are not married, she had the nerve to tell me to dump him and move on, so now I'm even more private about what I say so as not to get nosey people in my business.

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    Just laugh and maybe put some joke, don't take thing to seriously maybe she/he doesn't have any more topic to say or just don't know if she crossing some dangerous territory.
    – kirie
    Jan 5 '16 at 5:41
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    I've been dating the same lady for 30 years now. She needs to remember that not everyone has the same goals or schedules. Feel free to quote me on that if necessary. On the other hand "Thanks for your concern; I really don't want advice now but it's good to know I can ask you if I ever do" might be more politic. Repeat dosage as necessary.
    – keshlam
    Jan 5 '16 at 6:56
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    wow, your colleague seems ignorant. I wonder where the cut off point is for 'dating', where marriage or separation are the only two options moving forward....
    – piggy
    Jan 5 '16 at 9:24
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    No one said you have to tell the truth. If want them to think you single, then you are single, and change subject. Tell them you not into humans and prefer cars because they remind of your home planet. Hate nosey people. But when new, I get it, feel obligated just to keep polite. My wife is the opposite, she rambles to coworkers about private stuff and gets upset when they don't care. That kind of crap is like listening to someone talk about a dream they had, no one cares. Jan 5 '16 at 16:07
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Depends where you are, customs, the workplace environment, how friendly you are with this person, who's around, etc...No black/white answer here :( I'll sort-of answer this question from the prospective of what the other person may want to hear.

I'd recommend to say something like "I'm not comfortable talking about this anymore" with a sincere smile. Most people aren't daft enough to keep a conversation going or raise the topic again if the other asks politely. To help you be softer in your reproach, understand that you're co-worker may be trying to give you sincere, loving advice. If I found out an unmarried female colleague had a boyfriend for the last few years or had a daughter in that circumstance, I would give the same advice! The thing that would stop me would be the other person saying "I'm not comfortable about this topic, let's not talk about it" or an explanation about some extreme circumstance ("He's Scientology, I'm Muslim, he'd get shot by the government" or "He's been in a coma for three years and just got out").

So generally, just be kind with a smile and say you don't want to talk about it. People get clues quickly :)

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  • Wait, this site has PM?
    – Weckar E.
    Jan 2 '17 at 11:33
  • Saying "I'm not comfortable" is fine, but I don't think making up stories is useful. You just get tangled later on.
    – Burhan Ali
    May 22 '20 at 12:42
  • "If I found out an unmarried female colleague had a boyfriend for the last few years or had a daughter in that circumstance, I would give the same advice" - why? "an explanation about some extreme circumstance ("He's Scientology, I'm Muslim" " - why do you think that being Muslim is an extreme circumstance?
    – Aaron F
    Aug 14 '20 at 17:35
  • @AaronF Why would I give that same advice? Most of the women who are in this situation are victims of the patriarchy and we can't stand silent. "why do you think that being Muslim is an extreme circumstance?" I don't. The example I give is a Scientologist woman with a Islamic man. Scientologists aren't kitabia; therefore in some nations a Scientologist can't marry an Muslimist. It's not the "Muslim" that is the extreme circumstance but the reality that some pairs of people, in some countries, are literally unable to marry.
    – Lan
    Aug 14 '20 at 18:11
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    @Lan For one thing, you seem to be completely discounting the fact that a lot of women don't want the added strings that a marriage entails. I suspect your actual issue is cultural rather than with the institution of marriage. In a situation where women are equal, educated and capable they don't need all these strings because they are able to live by their own means.
    – Cronax
    Aug 18 '20 at 9:53
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One coworker found out I had a boyfriend but since we have been dating for a few years and are not married, she had the nerve to tell me to dump him and move on, so now I'm even more private about what I say so as not to get nosey people in my business.

Thats highly unprofessional from her.

Talk with her one on one. Make very clear that you are not at work to small talk about your private life, and make it additionally clear that you do not want unsolicited "advice".

If the behavior fails to stop after sometime, remind her.

If it still fails to stop, talk to your manager about it. Mention how you have brought this up with her in the past before going to your manager.

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I am a very private person myself, but also do not like to cause disruptions in the workplace with others.

I have found a fun way to keep things private and make everyone happy using this simple rule:

People enjoy talking about themselves, not listening to others.

Therefore, if someone starts getting nosey about your personal life, provide a vague response, but then ask them about their life. (I sometimes substitute a vague response with an outrageous, made up story that makes everyone laugh - and also forget about the question about my personal life.)

You will be amazed by four things:

  1. They will talk about themselves quite a bit.

  2. They will think you are a great conversationalist - a great person to talk to (all because you listened).

  3. They will think you are smart - again because you let them do all of the talking.

  4. When they start to talk to you again, they'll generally pick up where they left off from the last conversation - i.e. about themselves - because you're such a "great person to talk to".

When all is said and done, they know very little about you, but you'll know a lot about them. They will also like you a lot and spread how much of a great person you are and how smart you are - all because you let them talk about themselves.

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In my opinion, one too-personal piece of advice is too soon to tell the person not to discuss these topics with you further. I'm sure you reacted in the moment with a grimace or blush or some other involuntary indication that you didn't want this advice. Coming back to the topic now to say not to discuss that with you will have the opposite effect of what you want, increasing your coworker's interest and curiosity.

I think you need to distinguish between questions and advice. You (unlike some other folks who ask about overly personal conversations at work) don't mind "how long have you been dating this person?" you just don't care for "oh my goodness in that case you should be married!" The great thing about this advice is that you're under no obligation to accept it or, and people sometimes don't realize this, to refute it. Her opinion doesn't matter to you, so you don't need to change it.

This means that you don't need to rein yourself in at work if you don't want to. Had a great weekend with the boyfriend and feel like chatting about it? Go ahead. Maybe the coworker will offer unsolicited advice. So what? You can smile and carry on as though nothing was said. Or you can say "believe me Mary, I know you think we should be married already." It doesn't matter because she can't actually make you get married or break up.

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    Excellent idea about simply ignoring unwanted advice. Some problems do go away if you ignore them :-). Of course, if the advice becomes harder to ignore ("I really think you should dump him. Why don't you?"), OP may have to say a few clear words.
    – sleske
    Jan 5 '16 at 14:50
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Short answer: I would suggest just simply say that you have some work you need to get done and deflect the question.

Rather than challenge the nosy person up front, stating you are busy is a good barrier to throw forward in the workplace. It does, however, depend on your relationship with the person. If they are your manager (and perhaps you are not overly busy) then you could deflect with something like:

Oh, while I have you here, I am looking for another task as I'm nearly finished x and y.

Again, make it about being professional and working. It's usually rather difficult to counter just to have a gossip, and most people do get the hint that it's a topic you would rather not discuss :)

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You're going to have to give people feedback on how much personal information you're willing to disclose at work. Asking someone about their marital/dating status is a pretty common question among woman in the US. For a man to ask a woman if she's dating isn't really appropriate.

The example you gave is more about being rude than nosy. This person may have just spoken out of turn in this one instance and may never say something that ignorant again. There are some people that don't differentiate between close friends, coworkers and acquaintances. You can recognize them because they claim to be open, honest or just being themselves. They come across as idiots. At some point you'll have to let them know they've offended you and should stop. Keep telling yourself to be calm and professional. "That's rude." is pretty much all you need to say. Just remember the part about keeping calm.

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You're bound to run into a number of nosy coworkers throughout your career. The thing to keep in mind is 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."

Most reasonable people, even particularly nosy ones, will quickly realise that you're unwilling to discuss the subject. If you encounter someone who simply won't take a hint, escalate the directness of your reply. The key thing to remember is to stay firm and never entertain a conversation about topics you don't want to discuss.

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.

But keep in mind that responding curtly is entirely different from becoming angry or condescending. Always remain professional, even when dealing with unprofessional people.


Source: How to Fend Off Nosy Coworkers, Alison Green, The Fast Track - Intuit QuickBase Blog, 2014-07-03

This post partially rephrases Alison Green's article to avoid reproducing it in its entirety, some of her phrasing was copied verbatim.

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