In all my jobs so far I have had coworkers who spent their lunch breaks together. At my current job there are a lot of restaurants close and everyone goes there during their break.

I'm a very introverted person, so social interactions can make me very tired, on top of a health problem that does that too. Sometimes I just need a breather during my break but I can't seem to shake my coworkers without lying to them or 'confessing' I'm a little tired of them.

I've tried things like these:

Them: Are you coming?

Me: Oh no thanks I'm staying inside. (with the idea of being alone)

Them: Oh so will I then.

Or:

Me: I'm running to shop x for a second, I'll see you later.

Them: Oh no problem I'll join you.

Me: Oh you don't need to, I can go alone.

Them: I'd like to have a walk so I'm joining!

How can I avoid them tagging along?

I understand they mean well and just want to be sociable and often I join their outings but sometimes I just need a break. I'd prefer not to say I'm tired of social things or that I'm not feeling well and since I appreciate these people and need to work with them I do not want to lie either.

up vote 60 down vote accepted

Answer in a way that makes it clear you don't want company.

For example, when they ask, "Are you coming?" you could respond:

Thank you, but not today. I need some time alone to clear my head.

or

I'd love to, but I've already made other plans for today. I´ll join you next time.

or

Unfortunately, today I can't. I have some private matters to attend to.

or

Thanks, but I need some time to myself. (courtesy of @Upper_Case)

Normally, that should not trigger any further inquiries. If someone insists, it should be OK to say that you just need some alone time every now and then to clear your head and regenerate during your breaks. Or you can just tell them you have private matters to attend to and leave it at that.


Responding to comments: If the "I need time to clear my head" triggers concern at your place, either don't use it or counter it by hinting that you need some fresh air / distance from your desk to think about / process work-related stuff. Your colleagues will get used to seeing you taking walks alone in the park once or twice a week after a stressful morning in the office and accept that it's your preferred method of stress-relief.

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    How can you clarify between the "Is everything ok?" questions that are inevitable and just a note to be alone? From my experience, people like to pry if you leave open-ended remarks like these. – Anoplexian May 17 at 14:28
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    Sure. "I need some alone time to clear my head", the first response to be expected would be "Is everything ok?" or other checking-up responses. Any variation questioning your well being will at first be asked, until hopefully they get the picture. Is there any better way to address these remarks that are "just checking up"? – Anoplexian May 17 at 14:39
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    @Anoplexian: My bad, I´m programmer so walking around contemplating is a pretty normal sight of me, no questions asked. Sometimes forget that SO <> SE :) – Daniel May 17 at 14:43
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    the I´ll join you next time part in the #2 response sample will generate an expectation for the next time (probably literally). Depending on the condition of OP, this might not be desirable. – Mindwin May 17 at 15:34
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    I like this answer, but since phrasing seems especially important here I wanted to contribute an even more neutral suggestion of "Thanks, but I need some time to myself." Clear, concise, not suggestive of rationale or future responses. – Upper_Case May 17 at 19:49

You are not alone in this: I am not an introvert, I need socialising badly, but even I need a break as often as not. Particularly in a situation where I'm surrounded for long hours by people whom I did not pick to be my friends (read co-workers).

My solution? I always carry a book with me. Any time I want to spend my break alone, I pull out my book, and respond to any attempt at light socialising with something along the lines of:

I'm sorry, this chapter is really gripping / I left it on a cliff-hanger / etc., and I've been dying to find out how it gets resolved. Would you mind terribly if we talk some other time?

This way, contained in my answer is the explanation that it's not that I don't want to talk with this particular co-worker, or my co-workers in general. This is important - if you do not offer an alternative explanation, or a "next time" suggestion, people might assume you do not enjoy their company.

And it is not a lie - I am an avid book-reader. Now, what if you are not? If books are not your thing, consider what other hobbies you might be able to bring to work. It is understood that people have hobbies, and might want to use any spare time (such as a lunch break) to work on those hobbies.

The easiest way that I deal with this is

Thanks, but I like to read during lunch

or

I need to get some reading done so maybe another time.

After repeating this once or twice, they shouldn't bother you. I do usually read, catching up on journal articles, blogs, papers, or just plain fiction. But even if I am not strictly reading, this excuse works and repeating it a few times, they won't ask and will just leave you alone.

This works is because it signals to the co-workers that you are not interested in socializing with them; you prefer to have your lunch by yourself. It is short and succinct. It says nothing about the coworkers so there is not chance of offending them or patronizing them. The OP won't have to explain anything, aside from a follow-up question or two about what he reads or what he likes to read in which case he can be honest and tell them what he genuinely likes to read.

This is perfectly 100% plausible because a lot of people do read during lunch. It is not uncommon or strange at all so it will be believable and readily accepted unless the OP has made it clear in the past that he really absolutely hates reading and detests books. In addition, once the coworkers accept this, the OP won't have to repeat himself again and again everyday because reading-during-lunch will be accepted as his habit.

  • That looks good to me. I've edited it a bit to make the addition fit better into the post as a whole. Let's delete our comments since they're no longer needed. – sphennings May 17 at 15:51

I have found it helpful to use the word "introvert" in my explanation, so I might say something like, "I'm going to go be introverted" or "I'm going to go take some introvert time."

Assuming that the person you're talking to has a basic understanding of what it means to be an introvert, this communicates that you want to be alone, that it's not personal, and that nothing is wrong. When I've used this explanation, people immediately accept my answer and don't put any pressure on me to do something I don't want to do.

If their response indicates that they don't understand, you can explain, "I'm an introvert, which means that socializing takes a lot of energy from me. I've been around people all morning, and I just need a break right now."

Do you need to tell them you are leaving or do you work at a desk job that is more lose on when you leave for breaks and other things?

If you have the freedom to get up and go without notifying people, I just walk out and do what I need to do.

Another thing that most of my office based jobs do is make use of headphones, even if you don't want to listen to anything. Some days I am in a grumpy mood and don't want people walking up to me to talk. Maybe this is just an IT thing, but it is understood by my experience in office etiquette that if someone has headphones on, they are trying to "focus" and not entertaining idle chat. Some times I wear my headphones even if no sound is coming out just so I can have that alone time (I have a fairly chatty department).

I suggest the headphones because that has also allowed me to pass on unwanted lunch socials by appearing to be working through my lunch. This though can technically still be perceived as a lie by some even if not vocally.

The other thing I noticed is your choice of words you use. In the first example, you provide them to make the choice to still be around you.

Instead of saying

"Oh no thanks, I am staying inside."

that can be interpreted as:

We can still hang out if you want but I don't want to go out.

Instead you can say something like:

You guys go on ahead, today I feel/want/need like eating by myself and just listening to music.

This isn't explaining yourself while you are explicitly expressing your desire to be alone this time. They can't really say they will still join you because you have already said that you want to be alone. Generally, people have enough respect to not really push further than that. If you still want to join them other lunches, you can add a "maybe next time I will join". That way they don't feel bad and think you are mad at them.

Your second example also allows them to still force their way to be with you with your word choice:

Oh you don't need to, I can go alone

To some people, that's still an invitation to tag along because you are still giving them the choice and they could easily reply:

"no, I don't need to come, but I want to"

Instead, again if you have to inform of your departure, you should try using more explicit wording that does not give the other party an alternative option:

No thanks, I am going to go on my own

Here you kindly decline and state you are going alone and not providing them an option to miss read your words. If you wish to meet up afterwords, you can always add in "but I will catch up with you guys in 20 minutes when I am back". Again adding something like that at the end can help ease the co-workers from thinking you all of a sudden hate them.

Of course, they may ask why as to them, this is a change in boundaries that they are not used to. I always find it best to provide minimal reasons why helping to put the other person at ease. You don't need to answer any whys after you stated your intentions. Many people here in IPS are also very firm believers in not having to explain yourself or provide reasonings. I don't see it so black and white because some situations (especially with family or people you will be spending a large part of your day around) you want to let them know you don't hate them or are suddenly mad at them, you just need your personal time too.

I may follow up declining their choice to come with:

"I enjoy spending my lunch break with you guys, but there are days I just want to be left to my thoughts and music and I hope you guys can respect that."

It's short, to the point, and establishes a boundary to the people involved that this will be a recurring event and they should not read into it as anything other than you want personal time.

But again, you don't need to provide a why, just make sure that your replies don't provide them a foot in the door to still choose to come as explained above :)

Several good answers, but I wanted to add a harsh lesson from my experience coming to terms with being a strong introvert with an extroverted heart. I only in the past few years have learned to listen to myself and give myself the space I need to recharge.

Repeatedly giving an excuse of "maybe next time" or "I need alone time" without very clearly establishing why can be interpreted as trying to avoid the person and just pretending not to be disinterested. It can feel disingenuous.

I would recommend taking an opportunity to be direct with the person.

Assuming you do like them, tell them that while you honestly do enjoy spending time with them, you are a strong introvert - and clearly explain that that entails all socialization (the phrasing has been well discussed in other answers). That on some or many days, you'll need alone time to recharge, or you risk experiencing burnout. Then explain that (as long as this is true) there are some days you will feel like socializing, and would enjoy spending time with them especially. That you'll be honest with them if you feel you need alone time to recharge, or if you feel like hanging out.

This should make them feel more as if you have shared something about yourself with them as a friend, instead of that you're trying to avoid them, which could even improve your relationship.

In my experience, most people don't mind giving you space when you need it - they just don't want to feel rejected. Being upfront with them leaves no room for misinterpretation of "excuses."

You, like me, are an introvert. I need time alone to recharge. I would suggest if they won't stop, give them a synopsis of Susan Cain's excellent work "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking".

I had the exact same problem when I started at the company I currently work for. So very firmly I explained the following:

"There are two types of people in the world: introverts and extroverts. I'm an introvert. Among other things, this means that I need time alone to recharge. If you're an extrovert, you are the exact opposite, you need social time with others to recharge. That's fine. I'm not asking you to change what works for you during lunch. In return I expect you to respect me and not ask me to change what works for me."

BTW, if you haven't read that book, do so. It was a real eye opener for me.

-- Edit --

The one concession needed for this is that it does not 100% answer the OP's question, in that it does explain what's going on. However, in a case like this it may be necessary to do so.

For reasons I just do not understand, while I've found that most introverts fully understand both types of people exist and are totally respectful of it, as shown by both my experience and that of the OP, extroverts tend to think that everyone is, or should be, extroverted. Therefore, the notion of people that need time alone can almost be foreign to them.

Hence in a situation like this it may be required to explain exactly what is going on to get the message through.

  • Welcome to IPS SE! In IPS answers, I encourage new members to ensure that their answer responds to the question being asked. This provides some really useful information; I'd look for something that says "here's how to respond". If you haven't, I'd suggest taking a look through the Help Center (interpersonal.stackexchange.com/tour). Welcome! – baldPrussian May 18 at 20:10

Me: Oh you don't need to, I can go alone.

Them: I'd like to have a walk so I'm joining!

"No thank you. I was actually trying/planning to use this time to have a moment to myself. You know... "me time"...

(Maybe make the syllable "act" last about 3-4 times longer than most.)

By stressing what your actual goals have been, if they have an iota of social cue recognition, they will recognize that this is a social cue that indicates that they may have missed a social cue along the way. The typical response will be to want to avoid potentially worsening a situation by prolonging something that didn't work out desirably so far.

It also gives them a bit of an out, because you're mentioning your plans, thereby putting some focus on you, which makes it seem like less of a direct insult meant to be flung their way. Seeing an out, they are likely to take it. So, the typical response will be for people to drop out.

After the first or fifth or seventieth time, they're likely to figure out when you typically aren't seeking involvement with community activity. If they judge you as a person who doesn't actually want to be involved, and if the truth is that's accurate, then that's not necessarily a bad thing.

protected by SQB May 22 at 11:23

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