my rude and intrusive coworker makes me feel horrible

A reader writes:

I have a question about how to deal with a coworker. Some background info: I’m a 25-year-old woman, outgoing, and I’m well liked around the office and have been there for 18 months. She’s a 64-year-old woman and some people around the office don’t like her much as a person (good worker though), and she’s been with the company for 12+ years. We sit beside each other at work.

Our work rarely overlaps, so there’s no work-based issue here. It’s her personal comments. Today, I had a piece of pie with my lunch. When she saw it, she said, “If you don’t watch it, you’re gonna get fat.” This is not the first time something like this has been said. Last week, a coworker complimented me on a presentation I made to his team and she said, “She (me) probably didn’t know what she was talking about or understand the topic.” A few months ago, she said to me, “Your boobs hang out of your shirts like the girls on The Bachelor.” (My colleagues and HR contact assured me this is not the case.) When she apologized, she said, “I’m sorry I said that, but it’s kind of true.” This has been going on for about the last 12 months. I get about 3-4 comments like these a week.

My question is: how do I deal with this coworker? I’m pretty friendly, so I joke things off. For example, to the “you’re gonna get fat” comment, I said, “Good thing I’m a marathon runner and run a lot!” I love the company and my work, but she has started to make work miserable for me. I don’t want to complain or take the low road and return the nasty comments, but it’s really getting to me, to the point where I have been in tears by the time I get home.

Any advice would be great. My self-esteem has been beaten up and I’m upset I let myself be bothered by her, but it’s constant negativity directed at me.

This woman sounds like a horrible relative who you’d have to put up with for the sake of family harmony — how awful that she’s shown up in your office, sitting right next to you.

Fortunately, because she’s not a relative, you have more leeway in dealing with her. (I actually believe you have a lot of leeway in dealing with this type of relative too, but that tends to be more complicated and fraught for people.)

In any case, by trying to laugh things off, you’ve probably signaled to her that she can continue saying things like this without consequence, so even though this isn’t your preferred way of dealing with it, you’re going to need to be more direct if you want these comments to stop.

For instance: “Please do not comment on my body again.” Or, “Please don’t comment on what I eat.” You might be tempted to smile or laugh when you say this in order to soften it, but don’t. You need to convey to her that you’re serious. If she tells you you’re overreacting or need to lighten up, you simply repeat it: “Please don’t comment on my body (or what I eat) again.”

The next time she makes a rude comment about your work like the one she made about your presentation: “Wow. That was unwarranted.” Again, no smile. Say it and turn back to your work.

Also, keep in mind that these comments aren’t about you. They’re about her. Even if your work was bad and your boobs were hanging out of your shirt, who says things like this? Normal, socially appropriate people do not — or at least they don’t go about it like this. So you can be confident that every time she makes one of these comments, she’s revealing something about herself, not you. If you can come to really see that that’s true, you can actually start genuinely feeling sorry for her — because she’s probably unhappy and almost certainly doesn’t have much quality of life. Alternately, you can also start seeing her as a source of amusement — what’s rude, curmudgeonly Jane going to say today?

I know it would be better to find a way to silence her altogether, but since you can’t do that, the best thing to do is to change the way you respond to her externally (no more joking signals to her that you’ll put up with these comments) and internally (no more letting a semi-crazy woman have so much power over your peace of mind).

And one last thing: Can you ask to change where you sit? Seriously. If that’s an option, there’s no shame in taking it. You don’t need to make a big thing about it with details about why you don’t like sitting by your coworker; just say to your manager, “I noticed the desk over there is open. Would it be possible for me to move over there?” If your manager asks why, you can just say, “Jane is pretty talkative, and I’d love to be able to better focus.”

But otherwise, I’m afraid this one comes down to being willing to assertively set boundaries, tell her when what she’s said is Not Okay, and make sure that you don’t let a boorish loon control how you feel about yourself.

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