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Urban Etiquette

Ellen Vanstone answers your questions about the annoying behaviours, poor manners and impatient encounters that dot the days of a city dweller.

How do I tell a coworker her chatter is wasting my time — without sounding like a grump?

A coworker spends all her time on Facebook, YouTube, and chatting with me. I would rather keep my head down and get my work done.

Ani Castillo

Dear Ellen,

I’ve noticed a coworker spends most of her day doing personal things — YouTube, Facebook, looking at home improvement supplies, chatting with work friends or making personal calls. She also talks to me and sends me emails about her interests, which is distracting. I resent it since she doesn’t seem to value my time, and even more so because I know she is paid much more than me. My other colleagues tease me for not caring to look at baby or pet photos. How can I bring this up without seeming like a complete curmudgeon?

V. Busy

Dear V.,

There are two issues here.

The first issue is taking control of a problem of your own making. I spent years before I finally diagnosed this in myself, and I now see it everywhere around me (i.e., the corner we paint ourselves into when we want something, but don’t want to be seen as wanting something).

If you want something, you have to ask for it. Somehow a very bad idea has arisen in some quarters of “polite” society that it’s rude to pipe up and “selfishly” ask for better treatment instead of just sucking it up like a gentleman, or martyr, or whatever gloss your own particular culture puts on this walk-all-over-me-whilst-I-seethe-self-righteously approach. But resenting people because they can’t read your mind and don’t subliminally discern your needs is a mug’s game.

In fact, it’s more polite, and respectful, to give the other side a chance to behave better by clearly stating your request.

In your case, you have every right to ask your colleague to please stop interrupting you with non-job-related comments, Internet artifacts, or family photos so you can fully concentrate on getting your own work done.

Which brings us to the second issue: accepting that you have no control over the outcome of your polite request.

It’s possible your time-wasting, Internet-addicted, over-compensated colleague will blush with shame when you point out her lack of professionalism, and immediately, quietly adopt your own admirable work ethic. But by the sounds of it, it’s more likely she and the rest of your coworkers will indeed write you off as a “complete curmudgeon.”

So be it. We curmudgeons are totally underrated. Carry on, maybe buy some noise-cancelling headphones, and wear the badge proudly.

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