How to deal with busybodies at work

They’re young or old, male or female. Every workplace has them. They’re the busybodies who want to tell you how to live.

  • “I can’t believe you’re using an iPhone.”
  • “Are you and Kathy going to get married some time?”
  • “Another diet Coke? That aspartame is no good for you.”
  • “You’re going out without a coat?”
  • “You’re eating THAT?”
  • “Your kids shouldn’t be watching that much TV.”
  • “Why wouldn’t you drive an American car?”
  • “Have you thought about exercising?”

The busybodies at work can find anything to discuss and let you know what we should be doing differently. They tell us that we should be doing things their way. The right way.

As geeks, we are good at discussing the merits of an argument. We think we can explain our point of view and the other person will leave us alone, having seen the logic of our answers. We might think that explaining “I’m well-versed in vi, I have a large ~/.vim directory of plugins, and it fits my work style” will leave the emacs fan satisfied that we’ve made the right choice for us.

But it doesn’t work that way. The busybody comes back with an answer that takes ours into account, but still tells us we’re wrong. “Sure, but emacs probably also has all those plugins, and it can also…” For every argument we make, the busybody has a counter-argument.

It’s an interesting game, but the only way to win is not to play.

The way I don’t play this game is with a simple, non-judgmental response of “Thanks, but I don’t care to discuss that.” It doesn’t give the busybody any foothold to argue further. If he comes back and says “Oh, I know, but don’t you think you’d feel a lot better if you just smoked less?” I can reply, unchanged, with “Thanks, but I don’t care to discuss that.” If he still comes back, I can say “Thanks, but I don’t care to discuss that. I need to get back to work now.”

I’ve also found that providing justifications for our choices in life has a negative effect. Explaining our actions to others who have no business in our lives tells the busybody that he is right to be meddling in our lives. This is the wrong message to send, as no justification is necessary. It only encourages him in the future.

If you’re old enough to have a job, you’re old enough to make decisions about your life by yourself.

I don’t begrudge the nosy their motivations. I like to assume that they’re only looking out for what they imagine are my best interests. It doesn’t make their comments any less rude, but it does make it easier for me to not feel insulted by them.

On technical issues, I have to give the busybodies a little leeway, but not much. If a co-worker wants to turn me on to a new tool or technique, then that’s certainly OK. What’s not OK is badgering me about it after I’ve made my choice. I typically will say something like “I see that there are merits to using zsh over bash, but I prefer bash. If you think that zsh should be mandated in the department, why don’t you take it up with Dave and we’ll see if we should set shell choice as a standard.” That often gets the busybody to back off because he doesn’t want to risk losing his own freedom to choose.


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5 Responses to “How to deal with busybodies at work”

  1. Tudor Says:

    Why don’t you try some humor on them? (this question makes me look like a busybody myself, but I am NOT ) – when someone asks me when I’m gonna quit smoking, I tell them that then I would have no reason to take breaks. If they tell me that I have a few extra killos, I tell them that those are the kilograms of intelligence. And finally, if I do something that I myself consider as being wrong, I tell them that, after all I still have to dom things in a slightly wrong looking manner in order to not be seen as a GOD – but that is on purpose….after all these, haters gonna hate 🙂

  2. Andy Says:

    Sometimes I do use humor. For instance, when I used to get asked “When are you going to have another child?”, I’d respond “When do you need an answer by?”

    The problem with humor is the same problem with logic: It tells the person that you are open to a discussion.

  3. Piddles Says:

    Great post!

    I don’t think humor works all that well because it does leave the topic open to discussion in the future.

    People where I used to work always wanted to talk about dieting and exercise and give me diet books because I am overweight. They failed to notice I ate far less than any of them and have a health issue that I certainly didn’t want to discuss with them.

    So for rude personal comments, my favorite replies are either to ignore it completely, or say, “what an odd thing to say” or “why would you ask me such an odd personal question?”

  4. supz Says:

    I shaved my hair fairly close a few years ago. I digs it. No combs required. This horrid woman I work with said, “What did you do to your head?” To which I replied, “what?” She kept going and asked, “don’t you normally shave your beard when you do that to your hair?” There was really no choice. I explained, “you’re easily the most inconsiderate person I’ve ever met.” She doesn’t talk to me anymore. Problem solved.

  5. Andy Says:

    I guess your immediate problem might be solved, but I don’t believe that answering rudeness with rudeness is the way to go.

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