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How to Set Boundaries for Social Chit-Chat at Work

Updated on June 2, 2022Professionals

Some workplaces are slowly reopening in the US and other countries as vaccinations become available in certain areas. While many workers have adapted to working from home, a recent study found that many others want to get back in the office. 

The new study by Eden Workforce revealed that 62% of respondents said that their top reason for returning to the office is socializing with coworkers.

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After more than a year of working remotely, chances are that you and your colleagues have a lot of catching up to do. But when the chit-chat starts to affect your focus and productivity, you’ll need to set workplace boundaries.

How to manage chatty coworkers

Maintaining relationships at work is an essential part of any work environment. Studies have shown that cultivating positive interactions with colleagues leads to greater work productivity, more interpersonal trust, a stronger support system, and lower job-related stress.

Clearly, there are benefits to socializing in the office, but setting boundaries for talkative colleagues is part of the relationship-building process, too. If you’re in this situation, here are a few social etiquette techniques for the workplace. 

Define your boundaries

To protect your boundaries from chatty coworkers, you need to first establish what yours are. These limits or parameters can be physical or intangible. 

For example, someone who walks up to your desk while you’re focused on a project to talk about personal topics might feel like a breach of your spatial boundary. However, you might feel OK with having this conversation in a more casual setting, like the company cafeteria.

Timing can be an intangible boundary that you can set. You might choose to dedicate the first two hours of your day to focus time with zero interruptions, for instance. Some boundaries are also situational, like small talk dominating one-on-one meetings with a coworker so much that you no longer find that time valuable. 

Sample script: If a colleague starts a personal conversation in close range to others who are working, you can say, “Hey, I don’t want to distract the rest of the team with our conversation. Mind if we take it to the break room?”

Managing boundaries with a chatty colleague can be tricky, but using a considerate tone is usually helpful. Without interrupting them, you can say, “I want to respect your time, and I have a few more questions to go over before we run out of time together. Can we table that conversation for later?”

Acknowledge and redirect

Social chatter at work can happen in different ways. Sometimes it’s an individual offender and other times, a group of people can get swept up in casual conversations. Regardless of the scenario, a helpful tip is to briefly acknowledge the chit-chat but immediately pivot to a work-related topic.

Sample scripts: 

(Individual) “Wow, that sounds like it was a blast! But I should let you go—I have a hard deadline today and need to hunker down.”

(Group setting) “Nice! Looks like everyone’s engaged and this meeting is off to a positive start already. Daniel, let’s keep the momentum going with your updates. Please take the wheel.”

Avoid unclear or conflicting messages

Consistency is key when it comes to setting boundaries for social conversations. For example, you might be sending conflicting messages if you’ve set the expectation that your cubicle is your personal space for hyper-focused work, but interrupt others at their desks to socialize.

Also, being vague about your boundaries is another way you might inadvertently encourage unnecessary chit-chat. Don’t rely exclusively on throwing out subtle cues, like not looking at your colleague and hoping they’ll take the hint. Instead, be clear—but polite—about what you need.

Sample script: “I really enjoy hearing about your weekend, but I’m running behind on time-sensitive tasks. Can I catch you later when we’re both free?”

A last resort for excessive chatting at work

The tone you take with your colleagues will vary depending on how well you know them, the dynamic between your roles, and other factors. You might address the issue with someone you know well with a more casual tone, for example. Conversely, the language you choose for an office acquaintance might be more formal. 

Whatever you do, don’t ignore the issue to the point where going to the office becomes a source of frustration. Before socializing negatively affects your performance and happiness in the workplace, take steps to address it directly with your colleague.

If socializing on the clock becomes a constant distraction, it might be time to reach out to your manager or your company’s HR department to ask for further guidance.

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