18

I have a coworker who, without fail, asks me the same set of small talk lunch-related questions.

Every. Single. Day.


For example:

(As I'm heading out the door)

Him: Where you goin?!

Me (usually more specific): To that one food cart.

(when I get back from lunch)

Him (over enthusiastically): Wadd'ya get?!

Me (trying to get back to my desk): A sandwhich.

Him: What kind of sandwich?

Me: A such-and-such with so-and-so.

Him: Nice dude, nice. Did you get any chips? What was their special?

....


This is so routine that when he was gone one day and I headed out the door, the boss mocked him by asking the same set of questions. We both laughed in that, "It's funny but highly annoying" kind of way. I've tried to invite the guy to lunch but because I get up at 5AM, I can't make it until 12:30PM to eat lunch like he does so he'll decline my offer. Additionally, it annoys me a bit because he'll ask something specific like, "What are their specials?" or "Are they busy?" but then he never goes because he brings a lunch or says, "I'm going to go here-and-here instead cuz I'm on a diet." So it reveals to me that he's just trying to make pointless conversation- but it's tough to make daily conversation revolving around my lunch.

Again, outside of this daily thing, I do like the guy. But every single day this just annoys me more and more; a lot of it probably has to do with the fact that I absolutely cannot stand small talk. So for me as a social introvert, this literally makes me uncomfortable as I have to anticipate getting grilled about my lunch before I leave and when I get back. In reality, when I come back to the office to eat, it's specifically because my lunch break is my "me time" in the day where I do some reading on Stack Exchange. I really look forward to this moment in my day and don't want to be standing in the middle of the office with my lunch in my hand playing 20-questions over my lunch.

I've worn ear buds before as I've walked into the office in order to avoid his questions. If so, he'll message me via our work messaging client to make sure to get his daily scoop on my lunch.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that this conversation happens literally every day.


EDIT: There's a few comments/suggestions that I'm simply denying him the chance to socialize or that I should be more friendly. I'd say these are fair assumptions most of the time, but in this circumstance they're not entirely accurate.

For example, I frequently invite him to hangout outside of work. To the movies, to dinner, to my place, etc. We've hung out once as a consequence of this (again, it was me that prompted it) but every other time I invite him out, he says something like, "Oh man, thanks! I'm too tired today, maybe next week?" So I ask him next week and usually get the same answer.

I'm not unfriendly. Also, please consider that pushing the stereotype that introverts don't like to be social isn't true. We like being social, we just don't like talking about trivial things like lunch :] Running time of algorithms? New Harry Potter novel? College football draft? Let's talk all day!

I have tried to steer the conversation, but it still doesn't take away from the fact that he just grills me everyday about my lunch. Every day lol. So my question specifically is about the fact that I don't know how to tell him to cut it out because it really annoys me.

Anyways, I appreciate the support and suggestions so far! I just wanted to clear the air regarding us introverts and how we work. Again- we're not antisocial! Just not big on using our small lunch time for daily water-cooler conversation about the same topic. Thank you guys!

  • 36
    >he'll message me via our messaging client just to get his daily scoop on my lunch. I'm sorry i'm sure that's annoying but it sounds hilarious. – hownowbrowncow May 3 '16 at 19:23
  • 4
    I used to be this person. Being young, naive and excited about my first real software position. Thinking back to that situation I kind of got the hint when their answer was a single word said unenthusiastically, but I didn't really get it if that makes sense. I think @Richard U has a good approach. – The Muffin Man May 3 '16 at 19:32
  • 9
    So if you can tell he's trying to chit-chat and just really sucks at it, maybe you could help him have a less annoying conversation with you by cutting him off before he starts the ritual and changing the topic. This topic at this time of day has never resulted in an embarrassing disaster the other 872235 times he's used it, so can you blame him for sticking with what works? If it's getting on your nerves, help him find another "safe" topic. Socially awkward folks don't spontaneously improve - they need some help. – ColleenV May 3 '16 at 22:48
  • 4
    "Same as yesterday" – colmde May 4 '16 at 16:35
  • 2
    Sometimes a reminder is all that is needed. "You asked me about that yesterday." Deliver this reminder politely instead of responding to the same question over and over. – Brandin May 4 '16 at 20:30
32

The behavior you are describing is called "Phatic" talk, and it performs an important social function. Phatic talk is the reason people greet each other in hallways, and ask coworkers things like, "how was your weekend?" or "did you get your car fixed?" It's purpose is not to actually convey important information, instead it is a purely social interaction in order to establish acquaintances and maintain friendly and casual relationships.

Ideally, Phatic talk (or small talk) should be easy for both parties, and not exceed either party's comfort level. It should not feel like an interrogation, nor should it seem stilted. Unfortunately, things are never perfect. For example, conversation is low-cost to extroverts (so much so that it can be thrown away on subjects like sandwiches), but can be emotionally expensive for introverts. Also, your guy has fallen into an annoying pattern that that requires mental energy on your part, and is irritating you.

The solution is to recognize his questions for what they are -- Phatic attempts to socialize with you -- and change the nature of the conversation. Just like as an introvert you may feel uncomfortable in the social spotlight, us extroverts often feel uncomfortable spending time around someone who frequently is a silent, unreadable enigma. We feel like we must be doing something wrong, and need to try harder to find a common point of interest. He may simply not know what else to talk to you about, so he is using your lunch as a way to connect.

(Or, maybe he just has a weird fixation with your lunch habits)

Either way, your options are the same. You can:

First, decline to answer the standard questions. When he asks you what you got for lunch, just say, "man, who knows. Some food, right?" Same answer for inquiries about the lunch special.

Then, either redirect the conversation: "how was your weekend?" This will a satisfy the need for small talk, without having to give your lunch inventory. The risk here is, he will probably talk for a long time.

Or, Close the conversation: "brotha, I'm tired and kinda want to just veg out on my phone. But I want to hear about your weekend later." The downside here is, you miss an opportunity to connect with a coworker, and may get a reputation as being cold. However, it's less-bad than simply answering him in an irritated tone (or not at all) because it establishes a boundary he can understand (reassures him that your silence is not his fault; it's just because you're tired). If your office has messy politics, it won't help you. Otherwise, it is probably fine.

  • 8
    After a security training one day I had the realization that the meaningless small-talk and exchanges also act as a "Are you ok?" ping. 300 days in a row Jim responds, "I'm fine, how are you?". Day 301-310 Jim doesn't even respond. Something is wrong with Jim! :( etc, etc... I understand it's a particularly grim view of the value of small talk but that doesn't make it any less true. – Ethan The Brave May 6 '16 at 18:26
  • 2
    @EthanTheBrave: that actually meshes with a mental picture I've always used for this kind of throwaway small talk -- imagine a bunch of ducks softly quacking away in a group. Why do they quack like that? It's not like they have anything important to say to each other. And yet, it does provide an important function. For prey animals, it lets them keep a constant finger on the pulse, position and boundaries of the group. – MealyPotatoes May 6 '16 at 23:45
  • I had a medical test the other day and I was just lying there happily because I have had that test dozens of times. The medical person asked me how I was, mentioning that I seemed very subdued (I forget exactly the word she used). I said, no, I was happy and feeling well. I just happen to be comfortable lying very still and not talking with someone who is pushing an instrument against my body. Many, probably most, people are not. I made an effort to talk amiably at that point, but it didn't matter to me at all. – user37746 Jul 13 '16 at 14:16
  • Very interesting. Sounds like my coworker. We are the youngest at the office. He is an extrovert and I am not. He chats me up, which I welcome for the most part. He talks about things we ought to do in our free time, however when I set something in stone, he always has a reason why he can't. Like you said, the small talk is cheap, especially on company time. Time outside of work is much more expensive for an extrovert, when he has dozens of friendships to maintain. – SomeGuy May 15 '17 at 17:01
11

The best way is to be honest, when he asks next time give him his answer and tell him that you're bored with questions about sandwiches (hint: its the sandwich questions at fault, not him) but then its on you to offer a different topic of conversation, and to engage with him in taking about it. Ask him about TV, movies, sports, what he likes, anything to change the subject and ensure he has something else to talk about.

Usually such questions start because they want a conversation but can't begin it, so they make tentative and safe approaches expecting to move it along to something more substantial, but if you're not responding well and opening up to the initial request then the conversation will be dropped, making this type of interaction common. The onus is on you to talk back, spend 5 minutes directly with him (you do have your sandwich to give you an excuse to break off conversation) and you'll probably find the conversations flow more naturally once you get over this block that's built up. (or at least, that's my assumption based on your question).

  • 8
    +1. From the OP's explanation I get the strong impression that this coworker is simply looking to socialise but isn't very adept at it. Some people ask these types of inane questions, other people start talking about the weather...in any case, they're hoping that conversation will carry somewhere interesting. – Cronax May 4 '16 at 9:34
  • @Cronax TBH I figured it was the OPs inability to answer fully that's the problem: "what did you get?", me: "a sandwich"... is kind of a conversation killer. Kudos to the colleague for trying to bring the OP out of his introvert shell though. – gbjbaanb May 5 '16 at 7:36
  • @gbjbaanb My answers haven't always been one word. I used one word examples for this case to exemplify he fact that being curt with him doesn't work. I'm an introvert, but I do have social skills lol. It just takes me 20 minutes alone to get my lunch and I don't want to spend half of the last 10 minutes socializing about my lunch. And no, he's not trying to bring me out of my shell. I invite him to hangout after work consistently and he always say "maybe tomorrow, I'm too tired today." He literally just likes talking about my lunch. – 8protons May 5 '16 at 17:17
8

How can I drop a polite hint to a coworker to stop pestering me with daily questions about my lunch?

A quote I once heard went something like this, "Seek first to understand, and then to be understood."

While you are annoyed and bored, it isn't clear why this guy is actually pestering you like this. You assume it is small talk, but maybe he's loves food and you remind him of his lunch options daily because you eat first. Maybe he's incredibly lonely? Who knows... but maybe you should try to understand better.

The next time he asks simply ask him, "Hey, you ask me this every day. I've never known someone that asks me as consistently as you do. Why is it you are so interested in my lunch plans?"

No matter what he says next, listen and try to understand. Don't try to explain how bored you are, how annoying he is, or anything. Try to ask questions based on his response. Try to really understand if he just wants the daily scoop on your lunch or whatever. And then say, "Thanks for explaining."

After that, things should go better. His response might surprise you, it might not. But he will be very conscious of asking you, very aware that you want to know more about his questioning, etc. He may stop asking entirely, and you probably have not offended him with your questioning.

  • 1
    The quote is from "7 Habits of Highly Effective People". Maybe just give the co-worker the book. – user37746 Jul 13 '16 at 14:19
  • +1 This: [No matter what he says next, listen and try to understand. Don't try to explain how bored you are, how annoying he is, or anything. Try to ask questions based on his response. Try to really understand if he just wants the daily scoop on your lunch or whatever. And then say, "Thanks for explaining."] – R Star Jul 13 '16 at 15:27
4

Try engaging him in small talk.

This guy is seemingly just trying to be friendly. Asking you the same questions each day is a bit unusual, but perhaps it means he is not so comfortable in social situations and doesn't know how to make "normal" small talk.

I would try engaging him in conversation so that you get to know each other more and perhaps can have something more substantive to chat about for a couple of minutes each day.

The risk is that by engaging him you end up talking a lot more, but you said that you like him, so this isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Ultimately, if the lunch questions don't stop, I would just try to tolerate them.

The questions are only for a couple of minutes, are friendly, and are not offensive or inappropriate. The only odd thing is the repetition. I don't think this raises to the level of needing to take action to stop it. I would try to think about how I could change my attitude so that it bothers me less.

  • This is the best answer. – user37746 Jul 13 '16 at 14:20
1

I am late to the party, but wanted to give a very old and simple answer. This is generally applicable to all situations of dealing with people. From the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali:

Sutra 1.33 -- In relationships, the mind becomes purified by cultivating feelings of:
- friendliness towards those who are happy
- compassion for those who are suffering
- goodwill towards those who are virtuous
- and indifference or neutrality towards those we perceive as wicked or evil.

You will have to decide which category this person is in.

You can think of "purified" as meaning: tending to improve your own mental state. And, you get bonus points for being able to tell people you practice Yoga, because this is part of it.

  • 1
    The phrasing is awkward. Behavior should not be directed at people, but at their behavior - e.g. displays of happiness, sufferance, virtue, wickedness, etc. – reinierpost Oct 8 '16 at 23:12
0

Be straightforward. Set a CLEAR boundary -- one that he can't misunderstand. Use the same statement whether you're talking, using IM, or whatever.

"Sorry, I have far more important things to do than to discuss my lunch each day with you. But if you have something work related, then I'm all ears."

You might have to only say this one time!

  • 1
    You might only get to say it one time. – user37746 Jul 13 '16 at 14:19
-2

I feel like the best way could be to reply in a fun but confrontational way.

For example:

Him: Wadd'ya get?!

You: I got something that doesn't ask questions.

If the office mood is relaxed and you reply with a smile, it could be that the message will be received.

Anyway you can alway ask him to talk privately and tell him that this thing annoys you, even if it's not something he does maliciously.

  • 5
    I think it's a terrible advice. It looks like he's like a child in this aspect - he asks a lot of dumb questions. He just doesn't know they're dumb and annoying. If you come off with this answer, he won't understand what's happening and might think that you hold a grudge against him. Anyway, I can't see how this works good for their relations. – MatthewRock May 4 '16 at 10:10
-4

Sounds like the guy is trying to be friendly, albeit does not understand you are irritated by his questions. I don't blame you - I hate small talk just as much myself, and too much small talk at the office somehow renders me unproductive for the day, so I am definitely not a fan of this. However it would be rude and non-productive in long term if you just ignore him, or tell him to mind his own business. What I found useful in such situations, is first to respond to the question as you normally would (i.e. "I had a sandwich"). Then, you let this conversation "wear off" and pick another part of the day and then probe the co-worker with equally banal questions, some topic that you feel they would not be comfortable talking about. Repeat over a couple of days if necessary. If you picked the equally irritating question, you will notice immediately how they suddenly become less enthusiastic about the small-talk. If they react angrily or upset, you can always back off, apologize and say that you were just trying to make small talk, as the two of you do every day at the office. You will notice over the next few days your co-worker has become a bit less chatty :)

  • Wow, where did all the comments go? – Jas May 5 '16 at 5:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.