Reader: I am at my wits’ end with a co-worker. Our offices adjoin and she is continually coming in, making herself at home, and peppering me with questions. The questions are not work-related as we are in different departments. She asks a question, I answer it, and she asks again as if whatever I said didn’t even register.
Prime example: We had a huge storm Friday afternoon. She asked me five times, “did you have electricity when you got home Friday?" to which I answered five times, “Yes, but I did not have it all day Saturday.” The sixth time she asked, I snapped, “I just told you that I had electricity on Friday, but not on Saturday.”
She said: “Well, you don’t have to be mean about it.”
I first thought it was early dementia. But she is in control of her faculties. I hear her with her supervisor; when he is explaining a new process, she waits until he is finished and then asks questions. I seem to be the only person she does this to.
I sometimes keep my door closed, but this is frowned upon in our office. I have even tried answering all her questions with “I don’t know,” and she still keeps asking.
Karla: There may be no dumb questions, but there are plenty of disingenuous ones where the goal is something other than getting a meaningful answer.
You can’t really compare your interactions with the interactions your co-worker has with her boss. I’m far from an expert on how the brain works, but it sounds as though her brain processes and retains information differently in work conversations than it does in nonwork chitchat.
What is clear to me is that she’s trying to have conversations with you, but she’s bad at it. Her ask-rinse-repeat loop is reminiscent of a small child learning to socialize — a process that tests even the most doting caretaker’s patience — rather than an adult peer.
There could be any number of reasons: poor short-term memory, extreme anxiety, an attention disorder, subconscious bias causing her to dismiss anything coming from you, or possibly even the early stages of mental deterioration that she can still keep under control in a few key situations.
It’s equally clear that you’re not interested in having those conversations, and who could blame you. You don’t work directly with her. Her attempts at conversation are more like interrogations. You don’t mention enjoying her company, but rather enduring it. It’s not that she doesn’t listen to you so much as that she is wasting your time.
Maybe some of that sounds a bit harsh, or maybe it’s spot-on. Fortunately, there’s a range of solutions you can try depending on whether you find her intolerable or merely annoying.
At one extreme, you might ask your boss if you can relocate to a different workspace that’s less convenient for her intrusions.
If she respects a closed door, that’s an even simpler solution, even if it goes against your department’s general vibe. You can make clear to your boss and teammates that you are trying to ward off interruptions from your neighbor, but that they are welcome to approach you anytime.
Of course, that means potentially putting off people you need or want to be accessible to, all to avoid someone who doesn’t know how to respect your time.
A less-isolating approach would be to keep your door open but make your colleague’s interactions with you less-rewarding by giving only short, low-effort responses to her questions. “Yes” and “no” are complete answers, and you can soften as needed with a smile.
You can also cut her off at the threshold of your office: “Oh, I’m afraid I can’t talk right now.” Repeat as needed.
If that feels too stiff-armed, you can take “breaks” when she comes to visit. Stand up and invite her to come along while you go to the kitchen or bathroom. On your way back, scrape her off with a cheery “it’s been good catching up, but I have to get back to work now.”
Finally, the gentlest option might be to turn the interrogation around so you’re the one asking the questions. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you’ve asked me the same question several times just now. Is something on your mind?”