When you work in an office for a while, you and your co-workers naturally start to become curious about one another. This isn’t unusual considering these are the people you spend most of your waking hours with. It’s likely they’ll ask questions so they can get to know you better and learn more about your life. However, sometimes co-workers don’t ask questions to get to know you better. Rather, some are just downright nosy and want to pry into your personal life. They may want fodder for water-cooler gossip, desire to live through you vicariously, or they may not even know they’re being rude.
Regardless of the reason, it’s uncomfortable to be subjected to invasive questions from your teammates. You just want to run and hide or respond with a sarcastic remark. It can be hard to stay professional and maintain your sanity when working so closely with co-workers who don’t seem to understand — or blatantly disregard — basic office etiquette.
Corporate wellness expert Nick Angelis, founder of Behave Wellness, suggests only sharing information you’re comfortable with others knowing. “Keep in mind the adage, ‘only tell people what you want them to know.’ Answer in line with your personality. For example, a more straightforward person shouldn’t feel their only valid response is to gently change the subject every time,” Angelis told The Cheat Sheet.
Here’s how to answer these six questions from your nosy co-workers.
1. How much do you make?
Answer: “I make enough.”
Your best bet is to say you’re satisfied with what you make and then end the conversation there. Your co-worker could be asking because he or she is planning to ask for a pay raise. Let him or her do the proper research to find out how much of a salary bump to request. It’s not your job to help your teammate get more money.
2. What are you working on?
Answer: “Why? Do you need help with something?”
This is a tricky question because there could be an ulterior motive. If you get into too much detail about what you’re working on, you could be setting yourself up to have an idea stolen. Another possibility is that a co-worker could twist your answer and use this conversation as an opportunity to throw you under the bus for a mistake he made. Be vague in your response.
3. Why were you out yesterday?
Answer: “I prefer not to discuss what I do during my personal time.”
Your supervisor should be the only one concerned with your whereabouts. If a team member on the same level as you decides to play boss, put him or her back in line. You do not have to explain your every waking move to your co-workers. Remind them of this.
4. Are you pregnant?
Answer: “Why? Do you plan on delivering my baby?”
Unless your co-worker is a gynecologist or works in some other medical specialty, your pregnancy status should not be any of his or her concern. One good way to field pregnancy questions is to respond with humor. Instead of getting angry, keep it light and turn the attention back to your co-worker. This approach will hopefully catch your questioner by surprise and prompt him or her to move on and discuss something else. However, if it’s just not your style to be sarcastic, you could simply give a non-answer and say, “Children are a gift, aren’t they?”
5. Why did you take such a long lunch break?
Answer: “I didn’t know I had to report to the lunch police. Congrats on the promotion.”
Again, humor will ease the tension and help your Nosy Nelly realize an invasive question was asked. If you add a smile while delivering the remark, the sarcasm might be accepted with little resistance. Always smile (or at least try to raise one corner of your mouth).
6. How much did you pay for that?
Answer: “Why do you want to know?”
It seems as if the nosiest of co-workers always wants to know how much you paid for something. When money is involved, don’t feel obligated to share. Use the classic response and answer the question with a question.
One problem you may encounter when fielding invasive questions is that the person asking may not take the hint and know when to stop. You could try everything, yet you still might not be able to escape these annoying questions. What should you do? We’re glad you asked. Here are four more tips.
If your co-worker insists on getting his or her question answered, you may have no other choice than to take a bathroom break. Find any excuse to leave your work area. If you’re lucky, your teammate will get distracted and start a conversation with someone else.
Aaron Schmookler, co-founder and trainer at The Yes Works, told The Cheat Sheet that it’s important to also be sensitive to the possibility that your co-worker could be genuinely concerned about your welfare. Only you can decide that based on your history with certain co-workers, so play it by ear when it comes to how you respond. “Respond to these questions politely. More importantly, assume that your co-workers have positive intent in asking in the first place. You’ll usually be right about that positive intent, and even when you’re not, assuming positive intent will lead you to constructive responses,” said Schmookler.
Change the topic
You don’t have to suffer through an uncomfortable conversation. If your co-worker’s questions are getting to be too much for you, talk about something else. For example, if you see a stack of bagels in the office cafeteria, talk about how much you love bagels and how you enjoyed your visit to a diner with excellent bagels and cream cheese. Your co-worker might get so bored or confused by the sudden change in topic that he or she will just get back to work.
Repeat the question
Executive coach Debra Benton said repeating the question is usually the best way to get out of answering a question if you don’t want to be snarky. “Turn it around: Anything they’ve asked you, ask of them to see how it feels. Don’t do it snarky and tit-for-tat, but respond with, ‘Hmm, how have you …’ and then fill in the blank with whatever they’ve asked. They may be sincerely interested and not trying to inappropriately dig into your life,” Benton told The Cheat Sheet.
If you you’re at a loss for words, you can also try another trick recommended by Angelis — give a response that doesn’t quite make sense. Said Angelis:
Here is how I respond to questions that seem to have passive-aggressive or other ulterior motives: I look really serious and say things like, ‘Cheetahs can only charge at 65 mph for about a quarter mile, but the key is in the flexibility of their spine.’ They get unsettled trying to find the passive or aggressive meaning behind my nonsensical statement and leave me alone. Forever.