Dear Captain Awkward,
I need advice on how to tell a work friend politely to just shut up.
He’s a very nice guy – super friendly and sociable, which is kind of the problem. You see, he is WAY too talkative. He sometimes says things that are completely out of left field, and he tends to go on for AGES, often getting wrapped up in completely useless details. When he starts talking, everyone else has to be quiet and listen to his long and winding tale until he gets to the end, at which point we are all relieved and can get on with the conversation.
He is utterly lacking a social gauge and has no idea of how much it’s appropriate to say and for how long it’s OK to speak. I’d compare it to the social component of Asperger’s, but strangely this guy also loves to socialise. Anyway, it’s a big problem at work because everything has to stop while he tells a story – yesterday he talked at me for 10 minutes straight, totally unprompted, about the six Chinese holidays where people visit their parents, listing them in order.
I don’t know how to let him know that this is an issue for me (and other people in the office), or what to say when he starts to ramble. He seems to miss all the hints, strong and subtle. I feel like a script or two would really help me out.
Dear Tired Listener:
No more hints. And no more worries about exiting conversations gracefully.
And while interrupting people is generally rude, you get a pass with people who won’t ever stop talking and who don’t (for whatever reason, not all annoying behavior leads back to a diagnosis) gauge whether their audience wants to hear what they have to say.
Next time he starts one of these things, interrupt him.
“(Coworker), this seems like a long story, and frankly, I don’t have time to listen to it.”
And then turn back to your work.
“Coworker, sorry, I’m not interested in hearing about that right now.”
“Coworker, sorry, I’ve totally stopped following what you are saying. Anyway, I have to get back to work.”
“Coworker, was there a point to this? I’m actually trying to focus on (work problem).”
“Coworker, were you talking to someone in particular? Because if you were talking to me, I am trying to focus on work and I can’t listen to you right now.”
Do not invoke “everyone” or “the group.” It doesn’t matter if everyone else feels as you do, and that’s not helpful from a logic standpoint of convincing someone to change a behavior. The brave, classy thing to do is to speak only to your own experience. Keep it short, keep your tone even and light, like you expect that he will be reasonable and do the cool thing.
Leaving the room is another technique that you can employ. “Oops, can’t listen right now, need to check the fax machine/get a drink of water/use the restroom/go ask someone in another department a question/fish something out of my car/make a phone call.” Get a lot of exercise and stretch your legs, a lot. Up your water intake to the actually recommended amount. Your coworkers will jealously watch you go.
Is Talkative Coworker gonna be confused and sad at first? Yep. You’ve always listened to his stories before, and you might see him escalate his behavior temporarily to try harder to be heard. I had a person in my friend circle a while back who was like this – long stories made entirely of “middle”, to the point where I wondered sometimes if it wasn’t performance art to demonstrate the boring baroque response, constant talking, and no ability to see when everyone around was tuning out or silently begging them to stop. The only things that worked were “(Name), can this be quiet time now?” or “(Name), I’ve totally lost the thread of this story” or “(Name), I’m going to have to cut you off there, I am not really interested in hearing about this right now,” or, honestly, staying on the other side of parties from them and leaving rooms when they entered them. This person only responded to interruption + total bluntness. They didn’t get offended (though sometimes would launch into a long explanation of the history and psychology of why they think they talk so much, and that would have to be cut off), and they sure as hell didn’t change their ways, so part of remaining friends with this person was always going to entail dealing with this.
Go ahead and let your coworker be hurt/sad/confused. If he didn’t learn that this behavior is not welcome before now, he has to learn now, and being blunt and direct is actually the most respectful way you can deal with him. If he asks you if something is wrong, be honest. “I like you fine, but sometimes your stories go on for a while, and it’s really distracting when I am trying to work. I’m sorry I let it go on so long without saying anything. I don’t want to hurt your feelings or be rude, but I do need to be honest when I need to tune out and get back to work.”
If you want to remain on friendly terms, once a day ask him how he is doing and budget a good 10 minutes to listening to him before saying “That’s great! Now I have to get back to work.” If at all possible, do this in the break room or a space other than your desk. “Coworker, I’m going to grab some tea. Want to walk with me and tell me that story you started earlier?” It sends a message that you don’t hate him, you just need work to be about work. And it sets up a ritual – walking to the kitchen, brewing tea, and walking back you are totally into his stories, but when you get back to your desk story time is over.
If bringing headphones will help you and is allowed, by all means use them for now while you are trying to reset the relationship.
I realize that this might put a temporary damper on the other friendly socializing that goes on around the office, but I think your coworkers will pick up the hint and the example from you and agree to “Quiet Time Tuesdays” or whatever.