I'm pretty sure that these are things that we all face. Let's say that you spent months researching about something (be it moving from full time job to being a freelancer, creating a website, starting a business etc). There are colleagues who don't speak to you, but want to learn how they can do what you did from you with no other interest in you.

Let's take the case of starting a non-commercial website. I asked my friends, acquaintances and none of them could help me out with any info. Next I spent months in researching various ways I could build a site, various hosting sites, how to go about hosting my site, designing it, what software to use, what customizations to apply. This was apart from my 80 hour work weeks.

After months of constant effort and sacrificing other goals I was able to publish my website. And now people just walk up to me, comment on how great the site is, and then want to know what specific software I have used to create my site. Once I answer it, they quiz me around various other topics around how they can create it themselves. After their queries are answered they walk off, never to speak to me again.

Hence, I do not feel like sharing this info with someone who's not interested in making a connection with me. Also, it's because I have sacrificed a lot of energy into getting it. If a good friend of mine asks me then I'm more than happy to share whatever I have learnt. However, when colleagues or acquaintances ask me about what API, tools, software my website is based on then I don't want to declare it to them because they haven't built up enough friendship with me to deserve the fruits of my labor.

How do you not reveal info when colleagues or acquaintances ask you about something without being mean to them?

Controversial Post — You may use comments ONLY to suggest improvements. You may use answers ONLY to provide a solution to the specific question asked above. Moderators will remove debates, arguments or opinions without notice.

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    To rule out the 'simplest' answer of 'don't tell them you have a website to begin with' > How did your co-workers/acquaintances find out about your website to begin with? I'm guessing just not telling them you have one didn't work? – Tinkeringbell Sep 21 at 8:34
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    Also... I'm curious how you do answer their questions, do you make it a bit chatty or just business? Questions about something you did can be a way to start a friendship, but business-like answers might have conveyed a disinterest in developing one from your side, hence the co-workers never speaking to you again... – Tinkeringbell Sep 21 at 8:38
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    Please Note: Comments should be used for asking for clarifications or suggesting improvements. Please avoid criticizing OP and answering the question in the comments. Such comments will be REMOVED without notice. – A J Sep 21 at 11:03
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    Also Note: IPS has a policy of 'respecting the premise of a question' link. Mugen is looking for a way to dismiss their colleagues, please try and answer the actual question (and not whether or not there should be any info shared, as that's both primarily opinion based and off-topic here!) – Tinkeringbell Sep 21 at 12:25
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    When you say "colleagues" are you referring to co-workers, people who work at the same business as you? Or just people who you happen to know? – DaveG Sep 21 at 13:50

17 Answers 17

up vote 60 down vote accepted

First I would like to clarify something, I don't fully agree with the Stack Exchange (SE) example in other answers. SE is a network which asks others to volunteer to answer; you don't tag a particular person and ask them to answer it for every question. And everyone is a stranger here with no social relations or social cost involved.

What you experience is similar to what techies usually have, where others just ask them help with their tech stuff without even considering the value of the help they are receiving. They're in no way similar.

Your hard work is yours and you can say no to people who are not worth it. That's why stuff on the internet has licenses and patents. Nothing is truly free unless you want it to be and you are not wrong for wanting it not to be. Of course, the flip side is others have the same right. It is a matter of choice and everybody has that right to choose IMHO.

As for your specific question, if you really are okay to share some general details and are not really close, why not use a white lie?

Tell them you had a tech friend who helped you out with the specifics and you only did the easier parts and you would have to ask him for the info. And you only know bits and pieces. You can choose to disclose what you want but avoid specific details with something like

I will ask my friend but he might be busy and might not be able to answer. I can share an article that helped me understand the stuff.

From the person who asks your knowledge, if you want recognition/acceptance then share it, if you want profit then trade it, if you don't care then just say no.

  • 42
    I request everyone to not harass the poster of this answer. Please do not ping me saying that I've made a wrong choice. Please note that the question title doesn't say "Should I share info or not" but instead asks how to not share when I don't want to. That said. yes, I'm going to share the info with people. I share freely with most people. I got a lot of answers and comments telling me that I should share info. I get it. However, in case I do not want to share it with someone, I feel that this is the most diplomatic and best way of not sharing it. – Mugen Sep 26 at 11:48

You're asking this question on Stack Exchange, a website built on the very idea of obtaining information from others without much interest about them personally.

Can you imagine everybody on the internet had the attitude of "Well, I spend loads of time figuring this out, so why would I provide this information freely?"? There would be no tutorials, no documentation and no Stack Exchange.

This doesn't mean that you should freely provide everything to know, but it stands to help to be a slight bit more helpful. You say you spent a lot of time looking for the right approach. Point them to the information you found that led you to what you made. You don't necessarily have to share the information itself, but sharing the source of the information can be really helpful without costing a lot of effort from your part.

There is however a huge difference between SE and social context: on SE, it is not expected that you provide an answer to every question you see - there are no consequences. In a social context, there are strong negative impacts for "tuning out" and not responding to a question asked of you. In that sense, you are held hostage until you provide an answer, which does not happen on SE.

In such a circumstance, I think it becomes an appropriate and diplomatic "way out" to point them towards a tutorial or a knowledge base of the software/whatever that you used.

As has already been pointed out by @JAD in their excellent answer, the idea that we shouldn't share what we know with others does not sit well on this website. Sharing information freely is exactly what Stack Exchange is all about.

That said, I understand some of the sentiments in your question. It is very frustrating when people leach off your hard work and use it to give them an advantage over you, such as gaining a promotion at work that perhaps should have been yours. Situations like that happen because the other person doesn't share the principles of sharing for mutual benefit.

There is a huge difference between the kind of "knowledge" you get through lengthy research, and the kind you get by asking someone else for their own personal conclusion. The person that did the research has an understanding of why their answer was right, or the best option.

You can quickly give someone knowledge, but you can't quickly give them understanding. Knowledge is just facts. For example, imagine someone has never heard of or tasted a tomato before. You could tell them, quite factually, that it is a fruit, and you have just imparted some knowledge to them. But unless they have a bit more understanding of what it tastes like and how it is used, they may not realise it doesn't belong in a fruit salad.

So if by "months of research" you just mean searching for the right resource to learn from (such as Stack Exchange), or comparing different sources or methods until you decided which was best, why wouldn't you pass that on? If someone had done that for you they could have saved you months of your time! If there is something to still learn from that resource then the recipient still has to do that reading and practice that skill like you did.

If on the other hand you mean someone wants the result of your work so they can bypass having to work it out for themselves - well, when someone "fakes it" and passes for knowing something when they really only leached off somebody else and skimmed the surface, ultimately they are going to come unstuck. If they were challenged, they wouldn't be able to explain why that is the right, or best answer. And if someone got promoted into a job role on the strength of such a fraud, it will soon become apparent they can't do the job.

I think it is helpful also to consider the two very different meanings of "free" that are sometimes confused when talking about openness and freedom of information. One famous example used to make the distinction is that of the difference between free beer, and free speech. Sure, you can't do everything for free - you have to make a living, and indeed you are - this dilemma is occurring at your place of employment where you are paid for being there and benefiting the company in any way they expect you to. But do you want to live in a world where you can't freely access information? I don't. And it is in that spirit that I have made over 200 contributions to this site.

So, by all means share what you know with others, especially in the workplace because frankly your employer would probably expect it of you. If you think you are being "used" and even overlooked then why not make your manager aware of any "training" that you give to colleagues? Perhaps say something like "I'm just checking with you that it's okay to take [x amount of time] out to show [colleague name] how to....." That way your employer knows where other people are getting their knowledge and skills from. You are not holding back from helping others, but you will hopefully get equal recognition.

An approach that would work nicely in your situation is to just point them to where you got your research done. For example to the question of "What software did you use to create it?" you can say something like: "Oh there are hundreds of options for that, I read about it on ...... .com. Different options are explained there better than I could explain them to you, you should check it out.".

This way you are not totally brushing them off and you are referring people to the sources that helped you which will also help the creators of those sources. If you feel someone is close enough to go into more details.

I think this would work as it is giving people a starting point, which is what they need.

I have a better answer too but your only interest in me is my expertise on this topic and I have spend a lot of time to get it so I am not telling.

If you feel the need to avoid sharing your knowledge and experiences with your colleagues - which I think is a shame - then direct them to online resources (articles / tutorials) which would enable you to help them help themselves. If they want direct help then let them know you're busy and might be able to help them later in the day, or later that week.

I believe there's a lot of value to being someone who people come to for help. If it's having an impact on your workload then of course, speak to your manager about it for advice. He might give you the power to say no to people at busy times. I'd imagine he'd rather you help others than not though.

In my experience, knowledge in one particular area lead to me being called upon by lots of people throughout the organisation for assistance... and this was getting in the way of the work I was there to do. It took time and sharing / documenting my knowledge in that field to pass the baton on but this was a good thing for my project, good for me personally, and good for the wider organisation.

I know it's hard at times feeling "used" by colleagues but oftentimes people go to work to work and get things done and see others around them as resources to getting that work done. It's not personal - they're not being heartless or mean - it's just the way some are.

And the interpersonal connections will come in time, if you and the other people want that to happen. Be friendly when helping people and it'll naturally follow.

I got an answer discussing with my wife and also after reflecting over it - which is the best answer IMO and I would like to post that here.

Regarding this situation, it is better to share the information because:

  • They can find out anyhow. Share your knowledge. If someone really wants to find out what engine you've used, what tools you've used then they can still find it out by examining your site in details.
  • You might end up being a big help to someone. If you share you might end up helping someone do what they cannot do. You never know when that person might come back and help you one day.
  • You can ask them to take a quick look at your site. If you don't feel like helping out someone because they're not friends of yours, then ask them to visit your site immediately and give you an opinion, feedback, or to post a comment in exchange. It's going to take them a minute max and then you feel good about helping them with their site.

Ask them questions.

You say you don't want to share this knowledge if they're not interested in making a connection with you, but yet they are there talking to you.

Talking is how you build a connection with someone. If they're primarily interested in the website, you could still use this as an opportunity to build a connection with them (although arguably they'd be looking for this information online if that's all their after). If they are also interested in building a connection with you, they might've seen the website as a good opportunity to do that.

Now, as I read it (correct me if I'm wrong), you simply answer their questions and don't express any interest in what's actually going on in their life. You don't try to talk to them after this, even though they made the first move. So, from their perspective, you're the one who's not interested in making a connection.

Also, and more to the point, this will be a polite way to take the focus away from the website and thus avoid sharing too much knowledge you don't want to share.

It's also worth keeping in mind that many people have plans to create websites that never end up happening, many more are just generally curious about such things, a decent bunch would just go with the first available option in terms of tools or hosting, and the very few who would actually do months of research probably wouldn't go with the first recommendation they get from someone else, so it's unlikely (if not impossible) that you sharing this information will help them avoid the months of research you did.

As an example of asking them questions:

Them: Hey, I hear you've built a website. Which tools did you use for that?

You: I used X, Y and Z. Why? Are you building a website of your own?

Them: Yeah, although I haven't really gotten around to it.

You: I totally get it, it can be hard to find the time. [What do you typically do with your free time? / What will the website be about?]

etc.

About what you're doing...

This feeling you have is usually the origin of tribal knowledge--where a person or group in a company hordes knowledge to themselves without letting any "outsiders" in on their hard earned know-how. Beware this feeling, as not much good comes from withholding knowledge. Neither for the person being withheld from or the withholder.

That being said, I'd like to take a look at your question without delving into why it might or might not be a bad idea.

Looking at their expectations

If the comments and answers here are any indication, when someone asks you a broad question about the work you've done--even if they're just an acquaintance--they expect this information to be given freely. As such, you'll be going hard against the grain if you don't want to give them this information. In social situations, this is usually only okay with a good explanation or a diversion. If you just say no without a solid explanation, in my experience the other party will probably either become upset and/or push harder for the information. "Why don't you want to tell me? I just want to know XYZ, is that too much to ask? Why are you being weird about it?"

Again, if the reactions here are anything to go by, giving your actual reasoning may cause disbelief or outrage. As such, I'd divert the conversation while still giving them something to work with. With a smile and good-natured attitude, you could say:

Oh boy...I've spent so long staring at that project, I already see it in my sleep--don't remind me! If you want to learn more though, I can send you some of the websites I used.

This way, you deal with the inquiry in person when it happens and you can send them whatever resources you feel necessary after the fact when you're back at your desk.

So propose what will give you exactly what you want: no information without an interest in you personally.

Wow, your site is so great! What software did you use to create it?

You:

"Hey Joe, thanks, I appreciate the great feedback. Are you looking to create your own site? That's fantastic—it's been a lot of work but has been really rewarding. You know, just knowing what software I used isn't going to help you much. There's so much more to it than that. If you're really looking for guidance on this, I'd be happy to sit down with you and help advise you. Tell you what—let's grab coffee and go over what you have in mind for your own project."

At the coffee, avoid talking about technical details of your site. Ask about what the other person has in mind. If the coffee goes well, then say,

"Joe, I think I can help you. Tell you what. As a recognition that it took me months to figure all this out, and I'm sharing my hard-won knowledge with you who could end up competing with me, why don't you come on over to my house on Friday night at 6 PM and bring 14 tacos from MyFavoriteTacoPlace. I'll provide the drinks, and we can look at getting you started."

Of course, it would have to be your own style—but this should be enough to get what you're looking for. Those who have zero interest in coffee or a meal will bow out quickly enough. When anyone says "but can't you just tell me the name of the software?" You can answer

"there are tons of ways to build sites. How does knowing what I used help you on its own? It all depends on your budget, functionality required, time commitment you're willing to make, and so on. Sites don't just happen, they are planned."

None of this is a lie and none of it is trying to put the person off indefinitely. It's just a bid for them to get serious about interacting with you (on a topic you probably enjoy) rather than simply extracting gold nuggets and running off with them.

These two sentences are the key to your question.

“And now people just walk up to me, comment on how great the site is, and then want to know what specific software I have used to create my site. Once I answer it, they quiz me around various other topics around how they can create it themselves. After their queries are answered they walk off, never to speak to me again.”

Okay, so your question is—in all honesty—a bit rambling and all over the map. But this is fair. I think you might be a but your bolded final “question” statement gets clearer:

“How do you not reveal info when colleagues or acquaintances ask you about something without being mean to them?”

It’s not your job to make people feel happy. And it is also not your job to be mean to them. Here is the deal:

You need to be 100% honest to them in a way that respects you and respects them.

It seems to me you might be equating directness and honesty as being a “rude” response to a situation like this when the reality is directness and honesty is not rude at all. In fact, being clearly direct and honest is the best way to end a discussion like this before it escalates to something (potentially) worse.

So knowing that, all you really need to say is:

“Well, it’s not as simple as providing a shopping list of software. This was a lot of hard work on my part and while I appreciate that you liked the site, I’m uncomfortable going into any real detail on how the site was created.”

You might have someone come back to you that says:

“Oh! So this is super secret!”

And you can then just respond:

“This is not a big secret but coding and programming a website is not something you can just casually explain.”

Now past this someone might actually push you further and basically want you to make a website for them. In fact, a lot of what you describe feels awfully like someone passively trying to say, “Make me a website like yours!” And if that is the case clearly say, “Sorry, I appreciate you like the site but I have a full time job and this was a lot of work.”

And then honestly you need to perhaps repeat variations of the above or change the topic entirely. That is up to you.

But as I say, your question seems complex but it is simple: You don’t want to take about the website to people like this so you have be 100% honest and clear. And if all is said and done and they are still pushy or upset? Well, that is not your problem. Just say, “Sorry!” and walk away.

  • 1
    Hello @JakeGould! You say Mugen needs to be honest in a way that respects Mugen and their colleagues, and then give some example sentences. Could you explain why you picked these sentences for doing it? What makes these honest and respectful? If you could clarify that, it would go a long way to help people construct their own sentences in cases like this where your suggestion doesn't entirely fit the bill. – Tinkeringbell Oct 4 at 18:19
  • @Tinkeringbell Added expanded clarification as to why being direct and honest is not being rude and is actually the best tactic to control situations like this. – JakeGould Oct 4 at 20:15

This reminds me of some classmate that asks to see my homework without anything in return. It was like I worked really hard to do my homework, and they get to see the solution for free.

I suggest taking this last word literally and see this as unpaid work. After all, they are asking you information on a topic you would rather not talk about and are taking your time with nothing for you in return.

So, what I would suggest you do is:

  • Allow them to ask a couple of questions. They might just be polite by showing interest.

  • When you feel that they have asked enough questions, tell them that:

I'm sorry, but I'm not really interested in talking about this. Can we talk about X/something else instead?

It's okay to not be interested in speaking about something and suggesting to talk about something show that you are open to speaking with them, just not about your website.

Alternatively, if they are really interested in building a website, you can propose to them a "private class" where you will act as a teacher in return for some money.

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    Thank you for providing this info. Also, based on what everyone else is saying it sounds like I need to share that info. I'll think about that part more later. For the time being this question is solved. – Mugen Sep 21 at 11:29
  • I want to point to the fact that showing identical homework might deprive you of your own results and get you accused of cheating. At the same time, having a website built in exactly the same way as someone else isn't going to get you any problems unless they also steal your content and then try to accuse you of plagiarism (which could easily be disproved). Should probably have used another example. Not arguing with the idea you are presenting, though. – Baskakov_Dmitriy Sep 30 at 6:07
  • @Baskakov_Dmitriy True but I can't think of another example. If you think of another one, let me know :) – Noon Sep 30 at 6:10

In general, life is better if you don't hold onto the easy to copy things. If your knowledge is easy enough to convey in a few minutes of conversation, it's easy enough to appear on a do-it-yourself site when someone else figures it out. Where will you be then?

That being said, the situation you are in reminds me greatly of a question from earlier this year about people who "borrow" a cigarette. It was a similar situation in that they had something of some small value that they didn't want to give out freely.

The moral of the story from that question was to make the process of getting the cigarette from you worth the cost of giving up the cigarette. I'd recommend a similar approach for you. You have marks approaching you, seeking information. Can you think of something you want to practice that you might be able to practice in the process of communicating this information? Maybe there's something you want to learn, and you want to practice extracting that from the other person. I have one friend who may enjoy testing the debate skills of anyone asking such questions. Another recently read a book on hostage negotiations and may have some fun playing with those skills. Myself? If I can make you listen to philosophy till your ear falls off, I'm happy to hand out some trinkets of knowledge in return for getting to have that much fun!

You have someone approaching you who wants something. Enjoy it. See what can come of it.

EDIT: I'd avoided spelling it out, but you are specifically asking for a way to avoid giving information without being mean. You can always seek to glean from them information about how to not be mean when not giving them the information. You can always have a go-to approach that "works on everyone," but rejections like this are often most gentle if they are custom tailored to that specific individual. The conversation gives you time to figure out how to tailor it. "Works on everyone" solutions always feel like "works on everyone" solutions, but a tailored response can be very gentle indeed.

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    Hello Cort! We expect answers on IPS to actually honour the premise of this question. Could you explain how your questions answers 'how not to share'? As this is written it seems to be the kind of answer that's similar to telling someone not to be vegan or religious. How should Mugen go about not sharing? Or how should they get as close to that goal as possible? Please take a look at our recent summary of what makes a good IPS answer for more details. Could you edit this to point out how not to share/share as little as possible? – Tinkeringbell Oct 4 at 18:57

If neither of you have an interest in building a personal (as opposed to business) relationship, you can charge them for this information and your time explaining it -- effectively, provide a professional consulation service on the subject. (In personal relationships, the reward, instead of money, is presumed to be a comparable service in return sometime in the future.)

After all, you're saving them a lot of time and effort they would spend digging it up themselves -- which equals lots of saved money for them. So it's only natural to request a small share of that saving (large enough to satisfy you yet small enough for it to be still worth it for them).

Since this information has nothing to do with your, or your colleagues', jobs (as far as I can see), sharing it with them does not fall under work collaboration (as some other answers' authors seem to be thinking). Which, among other things, suggests that you should not be making consultation sessions during your paid work hours (unless the damage for your employer would be negligible but since you're making such a big deal out of it, it seems that it would be not).

  • As this is written, it answers the question of 'should I share' and 'how do I share'. We expect answers on Interpersonal Skills to actually answer the question asked, so could you answer how Mugen can avoid sharing their information with co-workers? Please take a look at this meta on good Interpersonal Skills answers, and please edit your answer to actually answer the question asked instead of providing advice on how to make a profit from the information. – Tinkeringbell Oct 4 at 19:00
  • @Tinkeringbell the title reads: "How do you deal with colleagues..." and further text explains that the problem is they don't want to just give it away freely. So the "question as asked" is: "How to avoid sharing information with nothing in return?" – ivan_pozdeev Oct 5 at 2:08
  • @Tinkeringbell there are two possible solutions for that: not share it at all, and get something in return. The latter is a far superior solution, so I go with it, and the former is detrimental with no gain whatsoever, so I don't even consider it. – ivan_pozdeev Oct 5 at 2:28
  • Though you have suggested some ideas about what to do, but it still lacks how to do. Answers on IPS should mention what to do, how to do and why one should do. Since it lacks a point, can you please edit your post to include these details? – A J Oct 7 at 17:08

Most of the answers are very good but a point must be made or at least emphasized.

It used to be the practice of those in professions to keep the particulars of "How to do it" from people outside the profession. Reference the history of the Masons or any priesthood into ancient times. Shaw's dictum; "All professions are a conspiracy against the laity." tells the story.

As the computer age blossomed people, youngsters usually, who knew how were more than happy to share not just how, but that they had figured out how. Since that time it has been uncommon for people not to share the benefits of their knowledge. Consultants are often much more aware of this and are likely to first establish a contract or other relationship before they open up about their answers.

The skills that have been left behind are those of dealing as a professional; representing yourself as working for a living, not giving away results and methods, attitudes of service, etc. What's new is the shock of adults as they find that other adults are not willing to give away what they value. Professionals have many polite ways of saying, "I'm sorry, I can't help you."

Edit: Thank you, Tinkeringbell, for the edit advice, and this is meant as non-snark. My first entry ends with the answer. Several others go into detail on how to give the OP's colleague just what they want while the OP is asking how Not to do that. From OP's question, their emphasis;

How do you not reveal info when colleagues or acquaintances ask you about something without being mean to them?

It feels like we both have the same problem at different layers of recursion. My comment explains an answer and then ends with it. Here it is again: "I'm sorry, I can't help you."

By way of interpersonal relations you may have found that you can't talk to them about the data or your experience gathering it without then eventually giving them what they want. Many ways to do that have been thoughtfully provided above. My point was how people have come to expect total openness when their used to be professional or other personal boundaries.

The issue is that they are trying to engage you with this subject. You are at liberty, if you prefer, to resist. Telling them "It's too complicated to describe." or "I don't have time to help." are ways of doing just that. These are polite as they need to be. How bad they feel about it is not within your control or your responsibility. You may prefer to tell them you are open to other subjects. Then the phrase might be, "I'm sorry, I can't help you with this." You are entitled to your own methods and results. It is you who must not feel bad about your choices in this regard. And I do hope this has been helpful.

I think an angle that some are missing is that this the time to learn the knowledge and figure things out is in some ways a red herring. While I don't per se disagree with the accepted answer, I think it still misses something important.

This is people asking you to, in the present day, to currently do work for free for them, with a presumption that because the work involved is presumably "just" "imparting knowledge", it carries no burden.

That some people volunteer their time and skills to answer questions on a site like SE is also a red herring for situations where that work is being directly requested of someone, with a clear presumption of expecting it to simply be given for free. There are a number of contextual differences, but the primary one is the valuation of someone's individual time and skills and agency.

Rather than focusing on the more "proprietary knowledge" aspects where discussing this has an associated cost background for you (your time spent learning), I would instead be upfront that this is a complex topic and that the results rely on a lot of your own work and knowledge, not just things someone can go grab off a website and install somewhere and achieve the same result in readymade fashion.

Soft Opening wrapping Firm Boundaries

I would personally start off with mentioning the basic overview in generic terms, such as "it's a WordPress based site primarily driven with custom plugins and themes", because if you feel like you're giving something special away (regardless of field) with a cursory overview of the fundamental techniques/off the shelf tools used, I can happily tell you: you're not. Even if they seem to be asking for "specific" details (it's hard to tell from your question how that's usually being phrased by them), this is how I would initially respond.

I would frame this in such a way that makes it clear that you presume that covers everything that was asked adequately. Don't, yourself, offer to "go into more detail"/etc. Don't ask questions of what they're doing/wanting to do, unless you're actually interested in potentially fishing for work or at least giving them the impression that you do want to discuss this more. If you're speaking to someone who understands the field and was just generally curious, this will be enough to have explained "what you did" in a general way. If they want to start going on about a particular framework/etc, then you can happily jabber on about it too, or not.

I do definitely also recommend paying attention to the other answers which dive into taking the request initially as a compliment, and particularly answering back in a way that frames it as such and addresses the complimentary nature of it, not the request itself (beyond maybe what I outlined above of using a generic broad overview).

Finally, it doesn't hurt to mention that it was "a lot of work" and, inasmuch as it did "took a lot of time learning/took a lot of skill/was something you were glad you were already trained in ____/etc". Particularly any custom work as such. It's ok to be proud of what you did and how you got there, and it's ok to clearly signal the value involved. Answers describing pointing people to places to "get started" are appropriate here if the followup question is something like "wow, how did you get to that point?"

But if someone is still asking for more details, one eminently correct followup is to stand up for yourself, your related expertise, and your time as a professional, in a professional and polite manner:

Well, it would require more technical detail than I have time for to get into specifics, but I do consulting on this: here's my card and I'd be more than happy to schedule a consultation sometime if you're interested.

If you really want to make clear up front and right now that this isn't going to be free even then (although the language cue/signalling of using "consult" is intended to help here), you could follow that up with either something along the lines of

...get in touch, and we can discuss my rates.

Or simply

Just follow the link on my card to my site, then it's under "Consulting" in the menu.

(have either a basic rate schedule or a mention of discussing rates on the related page)

There is nothing wrong with making clear that this is an aspect of your profession and as such it is work, and you are not planning on doing work for free just because someone else demands it of you, naively or otherwise.

Part of this is a matter of establishing clear boundaries with others. It's that you're still being friendly, but are not going to be taken advantage of for being friendly.

There is a difference between professional peer curiosity and related friendly discussion, and people who are effectively (even if unintentionally/unaware of doing so) devaluing your work and your skills in order to essentially ask you to do work for them, for free. Regardless of whether they realize that's what they are doing. Because, yes, standing there explaining in deep detail is work, even beyond the discussions in other answers of proprietary details or not.

Standing there and having a friendly peer discussion about some esoteric detail just because you found it interesting and the person you're talking to is knowledgeable on the topic and also finds it interesting is a very different story. I'm assuming that you can easily tell the difference between the two conversations.

Another part of this, and why I use the word "consulting" regarding this, is that the firmly structured context you are creating makes sure that this is regarded appropriately and also appropriately seen in regards to your own views. Do not suggest you would do this for "a few beers" or anything similar. Firmly contextualize this as work for you, not just a fun hobby you do for funsies, and make clear you expect others to treat with you on that context as a professional.

Finally, to be clear, the expectation is that once "real money" is involved, most people who have casually engaged you on this topic as if you are just going to magically be able to tell them how to do what you've done in the space of a conversation will at best express some interest in following up and then never do so. Firmly shifting this into a "I'll work for you, but this is real work if I do so" and "only for real money" drives away nearly anyone who had created a mental model whereby they trivialized this into something where simply expecting you to stand there and tell all they needed off the cuff was in any way going to both happen and going to result in them getting results like yours, just like that. My partner often remarks that if she had a dime for every time someone asks her about an idea for artwork and then runs away after a noncommittal response when given a professional quote, she'd be a millionaire.

What about just dodging the question?

One other avenue, obviously, is to simply say you're "not interested in going into more detail right now", but this type of passive demurral doesn't help in resetting and firming related expectations and boundaries. The "right now" can also easily be taken as a "oh, but you'd be happy to at a later date". Relating your discussion of those details to being a job you could be hired to do for them firmly contextualizes the nature of you going into more detail as being work, and all of the surrounding connotations.

Negatives

One potential downside is that some people will see this as "money grubbing". Part of this is that it will simply occur because there are people who feel entitled to demand work of others and refuse to view it as such. Depending on how much time you want to spend and how acrimonious things feel, you can take the time to ask them what their profession is, then ask if they expect to get paid for doing their profession, and hopefully bring them around to understanding why you aren't going to consult (and I suggest sticking to using this term for anything about further discussion, as it is a hard cue that forces context) for free: if you want to further soften this--assuming it's true--you can always say that you'd be happy to do it at your "friend rate" but this is work for you and you hope they understand.

You can also lean on the part that this is your time off and that you like to have some at least reasonable work life boundaries, and this is part of how you maintain those because otherwise people keep asking you to do work for free on your time off. Saying it like this is fairly passive aggressive (particularly depending on the tone), but can be reworded to be nicer or not as the situation demands.

Some people will refuse to understand no matter what, and no matter how nice you are, and I suggest dropping or shifting the topic of conversation at that point. You can't fix everyone. And yes, to me, this is something that is worth describing as "broken" when someone else refuses to be civil about it.

I've seen this happen in a number of fields that involve intellectual and especially creative work. Some people have a mistaken impression that just because in broad theory "anyone can do it" (in terms of things like "anyone can arrange some images on a page!"), and what they see as the "work" involved is "so simple", that means that the time to describe or even outright do it is something which whoever they latch on to should simply grant them, and that anything else would somehow be uncivil. It's hard to pull apart the genesis of this behavior, particularly since it varies person to person.

While I think it is nice to try to find and correct the underlying faults in their schema leading to this type of impression, that's also a form of emotional labor for which I don't think anyone should feel forced to engage in, and can be a hopeless task that just leads to acrimony as they pull back and entrench. I also wouldn't suggest making a professional referral for related counseling at this point, unless you really intend to insult them (because that's almost certainly how it will be taken).

In Short (aka TL;DR)

I've personally found that simply setting clear, clean boundaries, explaining your own stance in a relatable way (e.g. "this is work for me, just like your job is work for you, and I wouldn't ask you to work for me for free, please respect the same of me"), and not worrying about "fixing" their related mental model, but simply calmly ending the conversation if they insist on arguing, is the approach that overall works the best, and if done correctly also makes you appear to have taken the "higher road" to anyone else who is present.

Aside from the IPS side of this, one plus is that it may actually generate some related work for you, assuming you're interested in that. While this answer might seem to presume that you would be, it's relatively easy to adjust this for not wanting to or having time to do said work, which involves either raising prices (and I generally recommend setting them firmly at a reasonably high scale either way) or simply saying you're too booked up for the forseeable future [but can refer the person to someone else who might be able to help (assuming that's true--and this can be a nice way to send work to friends/colleagues who freelance)].

If you're trying to be somewhat nice, but firm, since you mentioned people asking the same questions:

"Look, I've already explained it a dozen times to other people. Just go ask * or *, I'm done with repeating the same things."

This is basically pushing responsibility onto someone else. You don't straight up refuse; you give the asking person a way out, while also providing an excuse for yourself.

Or for the first time questions:

"Look, I've spent months reading about it, and I can't possibly answer it in a few words. Do you really want me to spend hours explaining everything to you?"

People aren't dumb; they can take a hint and most will not get offended by refusal as long as it's not rude. Besides you're just scaring off the person with the prospect of putting in an effort AND shame them with the fact, that you already did, while not saying anything of the sort directly.

I can go quite deep into the reasoning here, but I don't think anyone needs it. Read ahead on your own risk!

You don't want to give a negative impression, so you can't straight up deny, so you need a legitimate excuse. That would be "tired" in the first case and "it's very complicated" in the second.

You don't want the person to look for you again for the answer. In the first case you give them an alternative solution (sometimes easier if they're friendlier with other people you refer to) and in the second you imply that it would take more effort from them than they are prepared to spend.

Now then, if they do decide to make trouble, you need society to be on your side.

People are social animals, and society as a whole always considers you being in debt to it just for being a part of it. "Good manners", "social responsibility", etc. are a part of it. Many pointless social interactions are a way for people to pay that debt off. You're saying "Good morning" to your neighbor every day? You've paid your due, and you can skip on being nice for the rest of the day as long as the rest of society is aware. You don't interact with others much? Your debt doesn't go away, and now you have to actually behave lest you are considered an "outcast".

So, since you sound like you're not very social, in most arguments brought into the public you will start from a lower point, than another person, as long as they go out drinking with others regularly.

Now in the first case you state right away that you have paid society back already and even do it more by showing the other person where to look for a solution.

In the second you state your preparedness to pay to society, but you also state that the other person will obtain a rather big amount of debt to society for receiving the answer. If they insist on you explaining everything that means they now can't refuse anyone's quite sizeable requests lest they become an "outcast".

And a small thing to think about: you have to judge by yourself, but people who feel "senior" to you sometimes would ask you about your achievements just to give you a chance to brag about it. If that is so, refusing is rude, but you don't really have to explain anything, just make small talk.

Small talk is important. It is your shield.

You'd be wasting your breath even if you told them.

note: this is a frame challenge to the underlying assumption that the answer is the valuable part.

First, people don't really listen. People are terrible students. They don't want lessons; they want to stay in the comfort zone of their preconceived notions, or at best, figure things out for themselves. So the question is as likely to be about ego reinforcement: they want to hear you name software they already like, so it can affirm their own decision. If you tell them you used Zyxxlon, which nobody's heard of, they won't even remember it when they get home.

In the novel series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a massive supercomputer was built to compute the ultimate answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything. After 7.5 million years, it printed out "42”.

Second, what makes your choice powerful to you is not the magic answer ("42"), but the confidence in the process which drew you to the answer.

You can tell them "WordPress", but it won't be powerful to them in that way. Because you cannot transfer the confidence in the quality of that answer, and all the research which brought you to that answer.

Get it? The valuable commodity isn't the answer; it's the research and confidence in the same. That doesn't convey.

And anyway, the best for them probably isn't the same as the best for you. (If it was, we would all use the same platform). They would not, and should not, take your answer at face value and just use your choice; they need to find their own "42", just as you did.

Instead, describe your process.

Don't tell them "42". Tell them about the process you went through to decide which to use or to arrive at your answer. After all, this is what they will end up having to do for themselves.

And, here is your answer: only go as deep into it as the relationship warrants. And you can go pretty deep nto your process if that's called for. Or you can go this shallow:

Wow, I must've looked at 100 platforms to find one that fit me. It's more personal than you'd think, I couldn't tell you what's right for you.

Here you're not really describing the process, becuase you don't owe them that. This is a hint; a seed; one they could plant and grow their own process.

My point is, you can legitimately answer their question as lightly as that, and not worry about having been rude.

  • 4
    This answer contains a.) A whole lot of reasoning on why not to share (which wasn't the question), right up to 'describe your process'. This is something that was already suggested in earlier answers too though, like interpersonal.stackexchange.com/a/18654/1599, interpersonal.stackexchange.com/a/18661/1599, interpersonal.stackexchange.com/a/18653/1599 and interpersonal.stackexchange.com/a/18652/1599, all written days before your answer. As such, it may well be a duplicate answer, what does your answer add that wasn't already written down? – Tinkeringbell Oct 4 at 18:52
  • 3
    Also, could you explain how your example sentence 'describes the process' and how it reaches the goal of not sharing/how close it will get Mugen to the goal of not sharing? What will the result of using the sentence you're proposing be? How and why would that work? – Tinkeringbell Oct 4 at 18:52
  • So Tink, I read your four. My first part has a thesis which is very clearly stated, with good imagery: it's that confidence matters, not 42. Your best example states that only in passing and buried deep in a rambling answer where he shotgunned a lot of concepts. Your second one, you really have to squint to see "unable to defend your vetting process to managers" as equivalent. The other two I don't buy at all. But dear reader, go look yourselves. I was very confident when I wrote this that nobody's thesis was anything like mine. – Harper Oct 4 at 20:49
  • As for not an answer, it's a frame challenge because OP's assumption about what is important about his work is not what is important about his work. – Harper Oct 4 at 20:50
  • @Tinkeringbell my example sentence is intended to not describe the process. I guess this wasn't clear enough from OP, but he doesn't owe random people an explanation of either an answer or his process. OP's precise question is "How do I not give them an answer?" [without being rude]? My example does exactly that. The first part frames why this non-answer is truthful and constructive. It is not separate from my conclusion, it supports my conclusion and that is its context. Do you think it should be framed differently? Should it be a footnote instead of a prelude? – Harper Oct 5 at 0:16

protected by Tinkeringbell Sep 21 at 12:42

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