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Every Wednesday, the cleaning lady comes to clean the hallways of the apartment building and is always looking to strike up long conversations with every single tenant who passes across her.

She speaks in a different dialect than me, so I can't make sense of what she says, but it's clear she's humble, modest, and nice.

While it's sometimes okay for me to talk with her, other times I can't afford to miss the train/bus/metro and arrive late at work.

How to avoid ending up in a conversation with her without making an idiot out of myself?

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    Note that this question has been heavily edited since it was created and some comments removed relating to the earlier versions. Answers/comments below might be more relevant to the earlier rather than later revisions. – Snow Aug 24 '17 at 9:00
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Just say what you said in your question,

Sorry, I can't talk right now. I need to get the bus/train/metro to work, have a good day though.

This is not only polite by wishing her a good day (keeping it polite as you'll bump into her again on another Wednesday) but it also indicates that you have a place to be.

If she talks to anyone and everyone I'm sure she won't mind (and will also understand you need to get to work) and will strike up a conversation with someone else. Cleaning on her own can probably be quite lonely.

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    True. It's a lonely job made worse when no one wants to talk to you. It's kind of neighbourly to stop and talk for a bit when you have the chance, it'll really lift her day having someone who's interested in her for more than a few minutes without trying to get away. – Snow Aug 23 '17 at 7:36
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    Maybe give her a card/end of year(month if you pass regularly) tip as well. A persone that feels appreciated will be kinder/work more. – Reuben Mallaby Aug 23 '17 at 14:02
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    @divine No, it's just a simple matter of having some empathy for others and treating people with respect, no matter what their job of social situation. I regularly say "Hi" to the cleaners in my company, and I do while greeting them as an equal. People in service industries aren't servants after all... – Snow Aug 23 '17 at 15:21
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    @AlexCommon I'm not sure where I said that, I was directly answering how to avoid a conversation when he is busy, it's his choice (and by the question "While it's okay for me to sometimes talk with her") he can decide to talk to her or not, it was a statement from me that "cleaning on her own can probably be lonely". Not advice to alleviate any potential loneliness. – Bradley Wilson Aug 23 '17 at 15:48
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    @AlexCommon It was more to point out as to why she may be "always looking to strike up long conversations with every single tenant who passes across her." – Bradley Wilson Aug 23 '17 at 15:54
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Since you ask how to avoid, this would probably work. (Not discussing whether it's the good/bad thing to do.)

Put on headphones and greet-nod her while walking by. Nobody tries to talk to you if you have headphones on, unless they really need something from 'you'.

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    Headphones - especially cheap "earbuds" - are a magic bullet for so many situations (you don't even need to have music playing, or even have them plugged into a device if the lead disappears into you pocket): noisy co-workers, beggars, people you just don't want to talk to. – user3573 Aug 25 '17 at 10:56
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Here is what I have done in the past. As you walk towards her:

You: Hello, how you doing?

Other person: Good.

You: Have a nice day ahead (with a smile)

Then just keep walking and leave. This is absolutely common to do here in the US. I have been in this situation before. Here you take the initiative and control of the conversation. It is polite and you do this with a smile. Other person would understand that you are on your way out and leaving.

Whenever you have time to strike up a conversation, feel free to do that.

  • "How are you doing?" "Well I've just blah and now blah, there was this blah, did you know about my childhood? I grew up in blah with blah sisters and brothers blah blah blah." I've never seen a talkative person just say good to that question, but hey, if it works... – user3316 Aug 25 '17 at 17:39
  • I usually START with "hey! Have a good day, bye" hahaha – user3316 Aug 25 '17 at 17:40
  • Incidentally, how are you doing is a rude question because it expects a lie. – Joshua Aug 25 '17 at 18:20
  • @Joshua That depends on the context, environment, body language etc - How you doing while showing signs that you want to stand there and listen is different than How you doing while on your way out the door. – pal4life Sep 7 '17 at 16:10
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As others have suggested, you could simply be honest and tell her that you're running late for a train or bus, however, a minority of persistent offenders just don't take the hint and insist on talking to you anyway.

Plan B would pretend to be talking to someone on your cell phone as you pass her -- very few people will interrupt someone who is on the phone. If you really don't like deceiving her just dial your voicemail, so she can see you're busy on the phone. Then all you have to do is acknowledge her with a smile and a nod, but hopefully, she won't interrupt your call.

I'm sure there are apps you can get that will make your phone ring to fake an incoming call -- if there aren't then someone should write one. It would be useful to be able to set your phone to fake ring at a particular time, so if you know you're going to be in a situation where you're likely to get trapped (boring meeting, that auntie who likes to talk and talk...) you know you've got a pre-planned excuse to break away.

Oh, I'm really sorry, I have to take this call outside.

  • Welcome to Interpersonal Skills! I invite you to take the tour and visit our help center to learn more about the site and its guidelines. Good first answer, by the way. :) – NVZ Aug 24 '17 at 11:07
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I don't see why simply being honest is a problem.

If you are really in a rush, you can excuse yourself from the conversation by

  1. An apology to her

  2. And saying that you are in a rush and you will talk to her later.

It is perfectly polite and considerate from your side that you are also acknowledging her desire to talk to you by saying you will simply talk to her later when you have the time.

If she is a nice and a polite person like you mentioned, she will perfectly understand that people have their own lives and that people must involuntarily go to places like work.

I hope this helps!

By the way, if, in the future, you are stuck in a conversation with her and you want to leave simply say (without interrupting her): "Well it has been nice chatting with you. See you later (or have a good day)" People take this positively and it is polite as you acknowledge that you enjoyed chatting with her and that you need to get going.

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You can escape from just about any unwanted situation in the world by gasping "railway station!" or "my bus!" and running away.

But if you see this lady every week, and she seems nice, set off a few minutes earlier and say hello and ask how she is. Then look at your watch and do step one.

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We should start with the age-old advice, "Be polite but firm," and then understand why that's difficult.

It's strange that you would call her "humble, modest, and nice" at the same time as writing in italics that she's seeking out long conversations with every single tenant. It's strange because most adults are reasonably good at differentiating between welcome and unwelcome chatting. Maybe she's a humble and nice person, but your culture and her culture have different expectations about chatting, or about the cues for disengagement. Maybe she's a pushy person with a forceful agenda (e.g., emotional neediness or religious outreach) under the appearance of being kind and mutual. It's very unclear.

  • Do the other tenants enjoy their long conversations with her, leaving you as the only tenant whose lack-of-desire is being ignored? (Do you have timid mannerisms that other people sometimes overlook?)

  • Do the other tenants get bombarded with more chat than they want, and is she ignoring many different people's efforts at disengagement?

Regardless whether this problem is cultural, personal, or both, you still have two obligations:

  • the obligation to her, of being polite and showing no disrespect
  • the obligation to yourself, of protecting your boundaries

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