‘My Nosy Co-workers Keep Asking About My Personal Life!’

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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

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Dear Boss,

I work for a small company on a project with a major client. Recently, I had a family member become sick and hospitalized. I made sure to talk to the client and my immediate supervisor to let them know up-front that my family member was sick and I would be taking time off to help, to give them a heads-up just in case I had to ask a co-worker to cover my responsibilities or request additional days to work remotely. I’m an intensely private person and while cordial with my co-workers, I’m not very comfortable talking extensively about my personal life outside the standard safe topics. While speaking to the client and with my immediate supervisor, I tried to keep things clear and to the point with few extra details. 

While the client has been very respectful of the situation by giving me space and not prying further, the people in my small company have continuously pushed me to give them more detail and constant updates. The company CEO is one of those people who believes his employees are a “family” and that everyone should be open about their lives — something that makes me extremely uncomfortable. I’ve had two co-workers, my immediate supervisor, and the company CEO pry about my family member’s health status and, on occasion, bother me about my health too, since I have several chronic illnesses and had to take time off for a recent, terrible stress-induced relapse. At first, I gave short replies and then deflected the conversation. But a few people seemed offended that I don’t want to discuss the details with them. My immediate supervisor once asked me point blank what my family member’s diagnosis was and continued to prod me for specifics, and it honestly threw me off guard. I just couldn’t believe that someone would feel entitled to intimate details like that. I told him it was private family information that I was uncomfortable discussing.

There’s an upcoming mandatory “team-building” event that I’m dreading because everyone at the company will be there, and will probably take this opportunity to pile it on and show their “concern” for me and my family member’s health. How do I get them to back off? I’m already dealing with my own health and on top of that, helping my family member with their medical problems, not to mention trying to keep up with this full-time job, which has been a big challenge. I also don’t want to be coarsely blunt — which has happened during past relapses of my chronic illnesses, when I’m high on pain and low in patience — but I also want to get them to stop. 

Also, it’s worth noting that my company doesn’t have an actual HR department because the CEO chooses to wear multiple hats, including HR director.

Ah, employers who claim they’re like families! It’s nearly always a sign of dysfunction. Workplaces aren’t families, and managers who frame things that way often violate employees’ boundaries, just as yours is doing. (Interestingly, “we’re like family here” tends only to work to the employer’s benefit — like you’ll be guilt-tripped if you push back against long hours or unreasonable demands, because “family,” but somehow you’ll be an employee again when it comes to your request for a flexible schedule or a raise.)

And really, you might not even want to share everything in your life with your actual family. You definitely don’t need to do it with colleagues.

But it can get weird and uncomfortable when everyone else in your office is a sharer and you’re not, and when there’s pressure to conform to a sharing culture. You can preserve your privacy and boundaries, but it takes some finesse to avoid seeming like you’re being cold or standoffish.

When people attempt to butt into your personal life and you’d rather not talk about it, there are a few ways you can respond. First, there’s the polite deflection. For example, in response to a demand for information about your relative’s medical condition, you could say: “Oh, my mom is hanging in there, thanks for asking. Actually, I wanted to ask you about the plans for the product launch … ” Or: “It’s pretty complicated — I don’t want to get into the details, but she’s getting good care. Hey, while I’ve got you, can we go over talking points for Friday’s presentation?”

But it sounds like you’ve tried this approach and people felt slighted that you weren’t opening up more. So for people who don’t accept polite deflections, try saying more explicitly that you don’t want to discuss it. This can feel tricky, since you need to maintain good relationships with colleagues — and especially with your boss — but there’s a way to do this diplomatically and without just yelling “back off!”, tempting as that might be. Such as:

1. “I really appreciate that you’re concerned, but I’m trying not to talk about it at work. It’s a nice break to just be able to focus on work when I’m here!”

2. “Do you mind if we don’t discuss it? It’s a big stressor for me right now, and I’m trying to keep my mind off it. How are you doing?”

3. “I’m doing okay. I don’t want to talk about it too much, but I’ll let you know if there’s ever something going on that will impact work.
Thanks for understanding.”

Pick whichever of these responses feel most natural to you and store it away. If you have it on hand and ready to go when needed, you’ll be less likely to snap at someone nosy when you’re low on patience.

If these techniques don’t work — and they should, but who knows, you might be up against really determined priers — you also have the option to talk privately with your boss and say something like this: “I’m getting the sense that you’d like me to share more information with you about what’s going on with my relative and with my own health situation. I really do appreciate the concern, and I know it comes from a place of caring. But I tend to be pretty private and usually prefer not to talk about it much at work. I wanted to mention it because I don’t want you to take it personally or think I’m being standoffish.”

And in fact, if you think you’ll end up needing to have that conversation eventually, you might as well do it before your upcoming team-building event, to ward off some of the pressure to share, which you’re anticipating will happen there.

It might also help to keep in mind that your colleagues are probably coming from a place of concern — nosy concern, yes, but concern and goodwill nonetheless. They should be more attuned to your cues, and they shouldn’t push when you make it clear that you don’t want to share, but sometimes being able to categorize co-workers as “annoying but not malicious” can make them easier to deal with.

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‘My Nosy Co-workers Keep Asking About My Personal Life!’