When co-workers have family pictures on their desks; they make personal phone calls when you're at work; and you spend long hours with them at the office, it might seem that you're all part of a big "family" of sorts. According to protocol expert Diane Gottsman, this false intimacy leads some people to believe that even personal matters are open for questions or conversation. Gentle measures such as pretending you didn't hear a question or turning away before a prying friend approaches you are simple and sometimes effective, but on other occasions, you might need to take more direct measures.
Establish boundaries with friends and co-workers early in the relationships. Avoid chatting about personal matters at work, making clear from the beginning that you're not interested in discussing your personal life when you're at the office. Don't get caught up in gossip sessions or discussions about others' personal lives either; this reinforces the message that you prefer to keep the work and personal aspects of your life separate. Similarly, steer clear of gossip or office chatter about co-workers, wages, promotions and the like.
Change the subject if a friend or co-worker begins prying into areas of your business you don't want to discuss with him. This applies to both work and personal issues. Gently redirect the conversation, if possible, to a more neutral topic. Etiquette experts at the Emily Post Institute recommend that you deflect nosy questions with humor or a phrase such as, "Never mind that, did you hear about ...?" and shift the discussion to the next company picnic or the latest big trade on the city's pro baseball team. When successful, doing so allows you to move to more comfortable ground without directly calling out the other person.
Be direct if more gentle measures don't work. If you're asked a question you don't wish to answer, say so. Be direct without being rude or abrupt. Simply say "I don't discuss personal issues at work," or "I'd rather not talk about that"; then turn the discussion to another topic.
Talk privately with persistent questioners. Tell them in no uncertain terms that you aren't comfortable with their questions and that you will not discuss certain topics with them. For example, tell them to please not ask you again about your marriage, how much you make or whatever the topic is that you find too personal to discuss. You might even need to say the words, "please mind your own business." While potentially uncomfortable, sometimes this very direct approach is the only way to get the message across to people who won't mind their own business. As a very last resort, cut off all but the most essential contact with intrusive neighbors, friends or co-workers.