How Introverts Can Set Boundaries With Overly Chatty Coworkers

An introvert with a chatty coworker

Introverts prefer to work quietly alone – and overly chatty coworkers can drain their energy and make it hard to focus.

The thing about being labeled a “good” listener — or at least being recognized as a quiet person who doesn’t talk much — is that it opens the door for others to fill the silence. “Others” meaning coworkers or people in our personal lives. 

But, well… introverts like silence. A lot. (Or, in my case, the music coming from my AirPods while I’m trying to focus.) When we’re trying to get work done, sometimes we need space — and minimal chatter — to put our best foot forward. 

Susan Cain’s groundbreaking book about introversion, Quiet, is aptly subtitled, The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. 

Introverts are not, as a general rule, talkative.

And, sometimes, we wish the rest of the world would follow our lead.

For Introverts, Chitchat Drains Our Social Battery

Fortunately, in my professional life, I haven’t had to contend with chattiness from others very much, at least not to the point where it’s affected my ability to get my work done. But that’s because I’ve taken a proactive – rather than reactive – approach in asserting boundaries to pre-empt, fend off, and extricate myself from situations that get overly chatty. 

Let me be clear: Introverts do like people. We love engaging in meaningful conversations (vs. shallow socializing). I love finding common ground, hearing what people are up to, and joking around, both at work and in general. 

But as an introvert, chitchat has to happen in moderation, since it can drain my social battery. For me, if there’s too much of it, I run the risk of zoning out and becoming less fun to be around overall, and being less productive in a work environment.

Over the years, any time a meeting went on too long for me to continue to feel present, or I got bored in break-room conversation, it added stress to my day because I knew I could be working on something else.

We introverts like (and need!) our alone time, require space to focus, and prefer deeper small-group or one-on-one conversations to idle chitchat… or to being stuck unnecessarily in a long meeting where the same points get rehashed by someone who likes the sound of their own voice. So, how do we tactfully avoid being rude or passive aggressive, but still aren’t too nice to the point where we don’t set boundaries when colleagues get chatty? Here are some ideas.

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5 Ways Introverts Can Create Boundaries in a Chatty Workplace

1. Think about your work environment and create a private space around yours.

The types of boundaries you set — and the way you approach getting out of overly chatty situations — will depend on your office environment. Is most communication via email, instant messaging, or in-person? Do people have private space, or is it communal? In which spaces do people most interact — the main office area, the breakroom, or the hallways?

I’ve worked in both open-office plans and in private office spaces. And I’ve worked in typically more “extroverted” jobs. Like many others, I attended tons of virtual meetings during the pandemic and had to face going back to the office. Through all of that, I’ve learned to set introvert-friendly boundaries to avoid getting caught in overly chatty situations. 

For example, while an open-plan office could be fun, it was also draining. I felt like I always had to be “on” (introverts aren’t usually fans of this). So I spent lunch breaks alone on walks, sometimes turning down invitations to chat with coworkers at a local restaurant or in the break room. 

When I’ve had my own office space, I’ve been selective about when I’ve joined hallway conversation, knowing that I’d have more energy for it at certain times of day (like after I’d had some time alone in my own space).

If you are in an open-plan environment — and if you had no luck moving to a desk away from everyone else — I’d suggest putting up “walls” of some kind, like plants. I’m not talking like a fortress, but just some physical ways to block yourself off from others.

2. Establish simple “do not disturb” signals for your coworkers.

It’s not easy being an introvert in the workplace. But as you increase your awareness at your new (or longtime) job, try a few not-unfriendly techniques to establish boundaries if you want to prevent future chatty encounters.

  • If you have a door, close it every once in a while. If your office is, for some reason, averse to closed doors because it’s not part of the company culture or whatever (I’m so, so sorry, introverts!), talk to a supervisor about acceptable ways to ensure you have the space to get your work done. For example, perhaps you can keep your door shut for brief periods throughout the day. 
  • If it’s okay to wear headphones at your workspace, and it helps you focus, go for it. Wearing headphones will typically mean that someone approaches you more cautiously or recognizes that you’re busy. It also — bonus! — blocks out any noise, i.e., office conversations happening anywhere near your desk. 
  • Simple door notes. Here’s an instance when signs don’t have to be passive-aggressive (we’ve all read those anonymous “Please do NOT leave dirty dishes in the sink” notes). You can keep it simple: Hopefully, most people will heed a “Please knock!” or “Focus time” Post-It note on your door (or cube).
  • Use traffic-light-inspired signs. Red = Go away; Yellow = Please knock; and Green = Come on in! Most people will respect these (you hope, at least!). It’s a simple way to be aware of, and courteous toward, one another. 
  • Take advantage of office software that has the option to show busy/away/available. This way, you can establish some virtual boundaries.

I’ll share an example that’s worked well in giving me space at work. During a busier season, when I have to knock out a bunch of work in a short period of time, sometimes I’ll leave a fun note on my (closed) door, letting colleagues know that I’m focusing and listening to some sweet tunes (but they can come in if they need to). It establishes a boundary — people don’t want to interrupt (knowing that I’m “in the zone”), and it also lets everyone know that I’m not totally averse to communicating.

3. Create an introvert-friendly routine, like a daily walk (or nap) at a certain time.

Whether you’re in a new workplace or have been there for a while, think about it: As you and coworkers have gotten to know each other, you also get to know each other’s routines. Maybe one of your more introverted colleagues keeps their door shut for the first hour of the morning, or someone who’s more extroverted takes a spin around the office at 3 p.m. every day to stretch their legs and catch up with everyone. 

Whether you realize it or not, your coworkers are probably aware of your routines, too. For example, some of my better-known routines include setting timers and putting headphones in to focus on answering emails in the morning, or taking an occasional nap in my office on my lunch break. If I’m napping in my private office on my lunch break, I am pretty much only opening that door if the building is literally on fire. 

If your colleagues know that you have certain habits and routines as your introverted self, that’s a boundary that you’ve set. (And, again, they should respect it.)

Do you ever struggle to know what to say?

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4. Be honest — and be firm — but be kind.

If your boundary-setting doesn’t work in certain situations, it’s okay to tell someone at work that you need to focus on… well… work. We certainly never want to hurt anyone’s feelings — especially if they’re just trying to be friendly and may not “get” the introverted need for alone time. Or if they don’t realize that they’ve let a meeting drag on way too long. 

But you do need to say something. (I know it’s not easy!) If you let it go, that opens the door (literally) for them to continue being chatty. 

I know, I know: Introverts aren’t big on conflict or confrontation. So when we need to set a boundary with someone, it can be difficult. Not because we’re pushovers, but because we just aren’t comfortable. The overstimulation involved in a confrontation — making both ourselves (and the other person) uncomfortable, bracing ourselves for an awkward reaction from them, or having to find a comeback quickly if we’re challenged — stresses us out. We can stand up for ourselves and set boundaries… it just doesn’t tend to come to us naturally. 

If you do find yourself in the midst of a too-long meeting or conversation, be honest, but kind: As soon as you can jump in, go for it. Don’t be afraid to interrupt with a signal at first, like lifting your hand, standing up from your desk, collecting your materials, or saying the person’s name to get their attention.

It can also be helpful to have a few go-to phrases ready so that you’re not hunting for words when you get the floor. (We introverts are planners, and we struggle to speak sometimes if it’s on the spot.) 

Try something that has the gist of: “Thanks for sharing about ‘x.’ I actually need to take this next hour before my meeting to finish a project, but maybe we can talk more later this week.” Or, “I love our chats, but I want to make sure I’m focusing enough on my work, too — maybe we can grab lunch soon to catch up.” (But don’t sacrifice your lunchtime nap time, of course!) 

In a virtual meeting, it’s easier — you can just leave after typing a simple note in the chat. “Thanks everyone — I have another meeting starting at 11, but will catch up later on,” is usually enough of an explanation for any reasonable human. 

In each of these cases, you maintain your connection with colleagues, yet you give yourself the much-needed alone time as an introvert to get your work done. A win-win!

5. If needed, talk to a supervisor (if the chatty person is interfering too much with your productivity).

If a colleague’s chattiness — or a string of unnecessarily long meetings — becomes a problem affecting your productivity, and you haven’t been able to draw that line yourself, it may be time to have a tactful conversation with your supervisor. 

As far as how to frame it, don’t think of it as a complaint: There’s no need to disclose the name (or names) of any super chatty coworkers if it’s unnecessary. Think of it for what it is — a simple request for boundaries. (See “Can I keep my door closed sometimes?” above.) 

For example, you might lead with, “I love catching up with the team, but I find that I do my best work first thing in the morning. I’ve noticed that my work has been interrupted during that time quite a lot lately, and am concerned about those interruptions affecting my productivity.” 

Then ask if you can put reasonable boundaries in place that make the most sense for you and your work environment, like wearing headphones, going into another space to work, putting up a “do not disturb” electronic message, or shutting your door. Chances are, your supervisor will appreciate your forthrightness and honesty — they don’t want you to be less productive, right?

Don’t Feel Guilty for Setting Boundaries 

Have you ever felt bad when someone says to you, “Oh, sorry, I guess you’re busy, but…” Yep, I sure have. 

But… no. Nope. There’s no reason for me (or you) to feel bad. We all deserve to feel respected in the workplace, and that includes setting boundaries that keep our social batteries from draining. That way, we can do our best work. 

On the flip side, pay attention to your colleagues’ cues, too — they may also be setting boundaries for themselves. (Maybe you’re an “extroverted” introvert and are the chatty one in the office.)

Trying out some of these boundary-setting activities to ward off chattier situations that affect your productivity — in the hopes of not having to resort to bringing in a supervisor or having an awkward conversation with a colleague — can help maintain a more introvert-friendly work environment. Tthat’s all any of us want, right?

Introverts, do you have any tips to add? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

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