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Some days, people at work have interrupted me with menial questions many times a day. I sometimes get irritated to the point of not being able to keep a pleasant face when they say "I'm bothering you a lot today".

Kids! One is too many! They wreck havoc in my house, and their parents sometimes say "You must be regretting having us over". Is it an attempt to apologize, or handle the awkwardness, or something else.. I don't know. But I feel like saying "yes, I do, very much".

I sense that the expected response to these half-apologies is "It's ok" but it's not, and I sometimes can't bring myself to say it. How should I respond without sounding excessively rude?

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    Possible duplicate of How to accept an apology, without implying that there was no problem? – Vylix Aug 31 '17 at 11:54
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    Could you add some information about your location/cultural context? – user288 Aug 31 '17 at 14:59
  • Tell your coworker to come up with a [mcve]. Most of the time just by doing that they'll solve the problem themselves. In the rest of the cases they'll just think you're weird and unapproachable and won't bug you again, which is what you want.. (But it wouldn't be considered rude as they'd know you were trying to help.) (At least, that's what they say over on stackoverflow.com.) – davidbak Aug 31 '17 at 16:06
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A possible reason for these half-apologies is that they are already imagining how you might feel, looking at the situation from your perspective.

To these half-apologies, the nicest thing would be to accept them, as you already noted. But you may add to that by letting them know your side as well.

At work: The coworkers are aware that they're bothering you with their questions, but might not know of another way to go about it. So you can say:

I'm afraid I do not have enough time to answer all your questions. So I hope you limit it to the most important ones. (or) I suggest you ask (whoever is the right person to ask) :)

At home: The guests are aware that it's hard to get their kids settled down, and they don't know what else to do about it. They might not be willing to leave their kids back at home for some reasons. So you can say:

It's understandable. They're kids. I wonder how you manage it at home. :)

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    +1 for explaining why people might say things like this. I especially like your response to the kids - "it's understandable" is not saying "it doesn't bother me", but still conveys empathy. – Em C Aug 31 '17 at 12:31
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You're asking two different questions here:

Work - I normally adopt a bit of a "look" when this situation turns up which mildly reminds people that it is a bit of a bother. But you have to suck this up and carry on. A bit of humour helps enormously

Kids - Respond with "yeah, it was pretty wild - how do you cope?".

It's the second part of that response that's key here. I don't think anyone can deny that herding kids into good behaviour is nearly impossible, but parents do like to share coping suggestions.

As long as you don't convey a feeling of real anger in these situations, you should be ok.

And it's perfectly ok to ask for advice when dealing with kids - you'll get loads of good advice in return.

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At the workplace:

  1. always be nice and polite.
  2. keep it professional.
  3. just tell the person: Do you mind if I go back to you about that later? I'm quite busy at that time. Did you search or have you tried [ A / B / C ]? Would it be fine if [ do X / in Y minutes ]?

This will help them understand you can't deal with this matter right now.

If it's a menial question, you show them a way to look for the answer by themself, it's helfpul for them ("give a man a fish..."), and deflects in an appropriate manner for a colleague.

With relatives / friends:

  1. always be nice and, well... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
  2. deflect: I guess kids are often noisy, playing, moving and running around. It's really tiring sometimes, I wonder how you cope with this all year!
  3. talk about something else, and/or just ask them if they mind moving to another room, or outside if possible: Yeah! You're right, don't you think we should move to [ another room ] and let them play here?.

This way, they understand that you're really bothered by the noise, but don't want to be rude.

You neither blame the kids nor the parents, show your understanding, and offer a way out.

Did I mention: always be nice? :) Why? Because it's better to keep yourself calm, and be nice, even when people bother you soooo much and you'd rather [ put any mean word / action here ]. This way, you won't get a stomach ulcer early.

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    Somehow, I'm really irked by the "always be nice" parts of the answer. While, of course, it's admirable if someone's always nice, "be nice" is also often used to shut down and ignore legitimate frustration or anger so that someone else can carry one with their rude behaviour. And someone saying "I'm bothering you" may well be just clusmy - but there's some likelihood that they're fishing for the "It's OK!" to go on with their bothering. – AllTheKingsHorses Aug 31 '17 at 11:43
  • @AllTheKingsHorses : because it's better to keep yourself calm, and be nice, even when people bother you soooo much and you'd rather [ put any mean word / action here ]. This way, the stomach ulcer won't catch you early :) but I agree with what you say too. – OldPadawan Aug 31 '17 at 14:30
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    @AllTheKingsHorses Precisely! I can tell they're waiting to hear the "It's OK". And I don't want to say it, because it's not! – insanity Sep 1 '17 at 5:43
  • @insanity : NVZ's answer first paragraph says it better than what I can express. And I agree with you too. That's why, e.g with kids, you let the parents know it's noisy and bothering, but can (better?) offer a way out of this. At the workplace, I don't think you can tell them. You need to grin your teeth and be professional... – OldPadawan Sep 1 '17 at 6:39
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    @OldPadawan Depends on whether you think your ulcer comes from anger or from suppressing anger to be able to smile (or, latest research results, mostly from bacteria in your stomach). ;-) Particularly in the workplace I've experienced a number of instances where I stopped being nice and let my anger show briefly and suddenly people where willing and able to do what I needed done. To me, anger has its uses, you just can't let it rule you. – AllTheKingsHorses Sep 1 '17 at 7:47
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There is nothing else you can say except no problem or it's ok because saying yes will definitely sound rude. However, you can cope with this situation with a smile and a proper excuse.

I face this a lot at workplace when people come with their small problems in programming. Though I help them, but sometimes I can't due to the workload. So normally they'd ask me if they are bothering me, seeing me that I am busy.

So, I just say with a smile,

It's ok. No problem. But here is a thing, this work is really urgent and needs to be completed today.

Smiling is necessary here, because this will cover the anger/frustration you might have. You can vary the response after no problem as needed, but show that you're doing some other work and can't help right now.

In case of kids, say something like,

No, not at all. They're just kids and having fun. Though it'd be really nice that they don't break things.

Again, say this with a smile and there will, possibly, be no harm.

You can also provide them an alternate option in all these cases. For example, you can ask your colleagues to go to person X or ask parents to ask their kids to play in other room, where they won't break anything.

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It is hard to tell in your work situation if the person interrupting you actually needs to or if they are in fact simply exploiting your assistance. if they need your help, then you have to simply find the most workable compromise if that is possible, like asking them to write down the questions, drop you an email and them wait on a response. If they do not need to interrupt you at all, but merely are prioritizing their want to know over your work, then that should be addressed. I have had both types of situations. There are people that for some reason will bother you with minute things all day long if you permit it. I don't know if they just want to interact and are looking for reasons or so insecure they need constant reassurance, all I know is that it needs a boundary for there to be harmony.

I say something like this

It's not so much that you are a bother, it's that I struggle with maintaining my train of thought when interrupted, especially so frequently and it is impacting my productivity. Is there another way we can handle your questions that interrupts my flow less frequently, like perhaps an email or making a list so that we can go over several things at a time.

As far as the kid portion, you state "one is too many" which sounds like you don't really like kids, or at least in your space. I would absolutely suggest you not have them over then. You can visit the parents at their own home or meet in public spaces. As a parent there is nothing I like less than visiting places that aren't child friendly. It stresses me out, it causes me to have to do a ton of correcting of my kids that they aren't loving (like asking them not to touch this or that, usually with total lack of anything they can do, so they are bored and antsy). It would be better for everyone then if you avoid that situation as it's seldom anything you have to do. There are usually very pleasant ways around it like meeting at a park or something else. It also means you can visit with the parents far better anyway, as they can focus more on talking to you versus peeling their little one off climbing your bookcase.

If it is some situation where I have a parents apologizing on behalf of their child, even if I do find it stressful or irritating, I simply say something like

Meh, they are kids. The good news is it only last 18 years.

And then laugh. Two year olds are wild, three year olds cry because they asked for crackers and you gave them crackers they refused, then you ate the crackers they wanted. They make no sense. They do all grow out of it though and we were all kids once ourselves and likely just as irrational and irritating.

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Remember that polite fictions are still fictitious.

When someone is interrupting your work with mundanities and the notice that they're irritating you is time for such a fiction:

Them: "I'm bothering you"

You: "Eh I'm in the middle of a thorny situation and it's messing with my head. Let's try this again later when I'm not so distracted."

Note that this may or may not be literally true: you may have been happily working away when they interrupted you. The important thing is that you took ownership of your feelings by mentioning that it's your problem that your working on and your head that's full of distraction allowing the other party to save face and not feel blamed for your response.

As for the kids at your house thing, well, you I assume you invited them. Or maybe it was the parents, but that's a package deal. Again, you are going to have to give an excuse for grumpiness that makes it clear you are owning your feelings:

Them: "Our kids seem to be bothering you"

You: "Oh it's not them I'm just irritated about unrelated issue x"

Unlike the above one this is not so much a polite fiction as an out-and-out lie: and you'd better have a credible issue x to talk about if they ask.

One last note, these excuses only work if you don't over-use them. Everybody decent will be willing to cut you some slack for being a grouch from time to time as your life follows the ups and downs that all lives do, they will be less willing to maintain a relationship with you if you are a constant grumpy mess even if they're the ones causing you to be that way. Maybe especially if they are the ones causing you to be that way.

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