Send your workplace conundrums to firstname.lastname@example.org, including your name and contact information (even if you want it withheld). The Workologist is a guy with well-intentioned opinions, not a professional career adviser. Letters may be edited.
I work in an open-floor-plan office. There are fewer than 20 of us. One colleague, who is expecting a baby, initiates each morning with very vocal updates and chatter related to her pregnancy. Her favorite topics involve how fat she feels, the consequences of her meals on her digestive tract, or what she ate, is eating or will eat. She once even mentioned what the placenta weighed, as she theorized about weight loss after pregnancy.
I’ve tried to be friendly with her by engaging in small talk, but have found that her conversations are limited to her two small children, her pregnancy or food. And these conversations can get very personal and pretty gross very quickly.
And now a large, almost poster-size notice has appeared on the office refrigerator, inviting everyone to a gender-reveal party and baby shower. The way it was worded clearly solicited gifts, regardless of party attendance.
Am I obligated to give her a baby gift to keep the peace in such a small office? Do I risk seeming like the office Grinch because I don’t enjoy engaging in or listening to stories about babies, pregnancies, children and bodily functions on a daily basis?
I’d like to have the freedom to be who I am: a woman who enjoys small talk with colleagues but is naturally more reserved and would prefer to keep topics appropriate to an office setting.
I’d start by stopping any attempts to be falsely “friendly” with someone you find completely annoying. That’s not a winning strategy. She’s going to interpret everything you say as interest in whatever matters to her, which is exactly what you don’t want to hear.
It’s always tricky to balance personalities in such a small yet open office. But even with just 20 people, everybody can’t be best pals with everybody; it’s normal for some people to be more bonded than others. So try to start conversations with people you actually like, about subjects that genuinely interest you — and maybe do so first thing in the morning, before the baby talk stars.
You can’t plug your fingers in your ears and shout “la la la la la” when this colleague starts in with the pregnancy news. But you can certainly appear to be suddenly distracted by something on your computer, or take a bathroom break, or otherwise zone out and signal something well short of interest. Keep it civil and polite, but nothing more.
As for the gift: As I’ve written in the past, anyone organizing a gift campaign or solicitation in an office setting should make participation optional, and be really explicit about that.