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I've recently had some troubles with a help-vampire in the office. She's about my age (late twenties), from India and she doesn't speak Dutch. She works in the same office as me, but not on the same project/team. She was hired on a recommendation by somebody on my team and is currently learning to program in Java. The only coding she does are exercises related to this, she is not working on any project.

She often traps me at the coffee machine, water cooler, during lunch/Friday afternoon drinks or even when I'm on my way to/returning from the toilet. She always starts with small-talk, but after two or three sentences she starts asking questions that google can answer. Often, these questions are not coherent or specific enough to answer, even when a language barrier is taken into account. Apparently, she still thinks I must be happy to help her (after all the unwillingness I've shown). It's like she's hoping that by asking enough questions, I eventually will slip in my resolve and do her work for her: provide her with answers to her tutorials/exercises.

Since I've never been very good at teaching, and I certainly don't have the patience to teach her (she's in my opinion very slow on the uptake), I've tried garlic and crosses, and everything suggested in this article:

  • I've bookmarked StackOverflow and the official Java documentation for her.
  • I've sent her multiple 'let me google that for you' links, told her to google things herself before asking, even told her I'm not talking until she used the resources I gave her.
  • I've always been careful to never do her work for her, and just give her the answer. I've always told her to go find it herself. In short, I've never been really helpful to her (which makes the fact that she keeps coming back even more baffling).
  • I've told her that the answers to her questions are all over the internet, and pointed out to her that cornering me to ask these questions doesn't give me a good impression of her.
  • I've pointed out all of her help-vampire characteristics as described in the second paragraph.

So now, I'm at a loss as to what to do with her. Hopefully, somebody here has dealt with a help-vampire before. How do you get them to feed somewhere else? And if there is no alternative food-source, how do you get them to prefer starving over feeding off of you?

In normal English: What's the best way to deal with her when I want to either get her to use alternative sources of knowledge or leave me alone completely?

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    Did you ever ask her, why she always asks you instead of, e. g. googling it herself? It seems that she is the only one doing the asking. Maybe in a friendly and non-accusatory way a small conversation could ensue and you may find out more (does she look for a friend more than a tutor, perhaps?) or you could point some problems out to her (like how it's useful for her to be able to solve her problems herself etc.). – Anne Daunted GoFundMonica Oct 4 '17 at 8:02
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    @AnneDaunted Are you suspecting "the vampire"'s motive for the behavior to be trying to make friends rather than getting help with a specific problem? – Fildor Oct 4 '17 at 8:05
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    @Fildor andTinkeringbell: Suspicion is too strong an expression. I just noticed, that you never mentioned having taken this (friendlier) approach to finding out more about her motives. You were pretty direct and it didn't help, I just wonderd if it could shed some light on the underlying problem (whether she is looking for a friend or experiences problems in her team making her seek out others or something else). Even if you get no meaningful answer(s) or your earlier impression gets confirmed, it's maybe worth a try. – Anne Daunted GoFundMonica Oct 4 '17 at 8:12
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    After a few comments to answers: How come she's not supervised in her excersizes? That's an immense shortcoming of management's side. There should indeed be some kind of tutor or "godfather" for her. And her progress should also be reviewed (imho). I'd expect all this as usual proceeding in a professional software house. – Fildor Oct 4 '17 at 9:58
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    Hmm, ... I am really torn. See, my experience with Indian co-workers is that they won't say "no". They won't admit, they did not understand and they probably will stay help-vampires. I know this is an unfair generalization and I am sure there are thousands of Indian people who are not like this. All I say is that it seems to be a cultural thing with them and I encountered similar behavior with asian (but not Indian) co-workers, too. – Fildor Oct 4 '17 at 10:16
57

This is anecdotal but maybe it can help:

It was very rude of me and I am not proud of it, but when in that situation, I let the person down.

Literally, I played "stupid". I pretended to not get what he was asking and don't know the answer. So, to use your image: I dried out the food source. He went elsewhere and partly learned to find out things himself.

Mind that this was also after trying everything else. When it started to get me into trouble because I wasn't able to finish my work on time, I decided to go a***ole about it.


Today, I would try and speak to her team lead and suggest to get some training or dedicated counselor for her *). At least make someone else aware that she is distracting you from your actual work in an unpleasant manner. As Timmetje points out: don't make it personal. Keep things "grown up" and professional. Point out the practical implications instead of your "being annoyed".

Especially if you are not "hard" enough to just "let her down", you may be better off sharing the weight on your shoulders. If she fails in trainings and it gets her fired, well it's not your fault - she probably shouldn't have been hired in the first place.

Again: should it turn out her behavior gets her into trouble, well - it is not your fault. At the end of the day it may be it's not the right career choice for her. Not everyone can be a developer.


Mind, that I did never give a wrong answer on purpose. All I did was not giving an answer at all. Deceiving the vampire or trying to get him/her into trouble by giving false info will backfire, especially in software development.


*) EDIT: After getting to know that training is all she does: She definitely needs a "godfather" or supervisor to go to. It's absolutely outrageous if she has to bother any (random) co-worker just because she doesn't know whom to ask.

Until she has such a person: Maybe try to "reduce" your help instead of refusing it completely. This would seem unfair to me, now.

If she has some "light" supervision like you had yourself (as you write in comments), then maybe it is helpful to talk to her supervisor about the situation. Not accusingly, not like "she so annoying" but professionally. Maybe the supervisor just needs to supervise her a little more than they did you. Not every person can handle "self-learning" equally well.

And there's also the cultural component I mentioned in comments: Maybe she feels intimidated or embarrassed or otherwise refrains from asking her supervisor directly (I won't speculate about reasoning because that would be irrelevant to you).

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    This was used on me by my first boss in IT. I would call him for help, he would always take my call and was always very friendly and after helping me once or twice started simply saying, "I don't know". I eventually understood what was really going on and resolved to teach myself and learned to think on my feet. Maybe a tactic that wouldn't work on everyone but it really helped make me effective at self teaching and customer service. – Todd Wilcox Oct 4 '17 at 13:09
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    Kind of reminds me of a former workplace where we mostly communicated via email and skype. We used to pass around "Let me gogle that for you"-links in such situations where the asker could have easily just google the problem. Downside is you really have to know the person is not going to take such a "hint" personal. – Fildor Oct 4 '17 at 14:28
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    Apparently, she had a supervisor but didn't ask them. I played dumb by not answering or completely ignoring her, that started to work in lessening her requests. I also 'talked' to her supervisor/manager in that he overheard me telling her 'she should be asking such questions from her supervisor so they understood she's not at that level yet' at the coffee machine. She's gone now. – Tinkeringbell Dec 5 '17 at 12:30
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This is my professional opinion as a development lead of three software teams (in the Netherlands).

Dealing with her personally is not solving the underlying problem.

She is either not properly guided by a colleague in her team, or not suited for the company.

Instead of trying to avoid or stopping her vampire behavior, try to do the best also in the company's interest. This is also good for you.

You said she is in the process of learning Java; this means there is somebody that is supposed to be her go-to buddy/coach. Take it up with him/her to do a better job and mention you find yourself not suited to do so. And also let him/her know you doubt the "vampires" skill (but be professional about it).

If there isn't a colleague guiding her, than take it up with the Team Lead, Scrum Master, Project Manager or HR. This is a really bad way of teaching your trainees, and they need proper guidance. Again let him/her know you doubt the vampire's skill and again be professional about it.

If after all this nothing changes, then start solving the problem by not giving help and simply state: "I don't find myself suited guiding you; please ask someone in your team. Good luck."

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    I'm also in software development (though not in the Netherlands). In the context of this situation I feel this is the best answer because it takes into account many common mechanisms of modern software development - some kind of chain of command, scrum/scrum master, and mitigating the ever-looming risk of being interrupted when you're working on something. – bluescores Oct 6 '17 at 12:06
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In agreement with @Anne Daunted's well-founded 'suspicion' in comments that your new colleague might be looking for a friend rather than a tutor, may I suggest based on my personal experience as an Indian, even at risk of over-generalizing, that in the Indian cultural context, asking someone learning-related questions after joining a new community or organization is a typical type of submissive (read friend-making) social behavior intended to establish a non-competitive social relationship with others, in order to be well-accepted into the community as a new or junior member.

I would do this myself if I joined a new organization. It's the done thing in Indian culture. By asking you so many work-related questions that she could find the answers to easily herself, she is probably expressing humility and dependence by giving you the message that you are more knowledgeable and her organizational superior, which is simply meant to make you her friend, as the first stage of getting well-integrated into the organization.

Although such insecure behavior is typical of someone new to a company/ city/ country, it may also be significant that you are so fluent in English, @Tinkeringbell, if the main office language and the first language of most employees is Dutch, because your new colleague doesn't know Dutch and India is an anglophone country. Also, Indian women going to a strange land tend to make a female friend of similar age first, to get more confidence in an unfamiliar social setting. I am trying to explain these possibilities in such detail because understanding the real problem is key to solving it.

So how can you deal with her?

1. First, @Anne Daunted so perceptively suggested in 2 comments,

Did you ever ask her, why she always asks you instead of, e. g. googling it herself? It seems that she is the only one doing the asking. Maybe in a friendly and non-accusatory way a small conversation could ensue and you may find out more (does she look for a friend more than a tutor, perhaps?) or you could point some problems out to her (like how it's useful for her to be able to solve her problems herself etc.) [...] You were pretty direct and it didn't help, I just wondered if it could shed some light on the underlying problem (whether she is looking for a friend or experiences problems in her team making her seek out others or something else).

2. May I also recommend pointing out to her quite frankly that she needs to understand how asking easily-researched work-related questions might well be useful to demonstrate humility and dependence for her purpose of community-integration in an Indian cultural context, but it creates a very bad impression in the Dutch workplace which values competence and independence more, as good professional and social traits.

When you say this you are revealing your understanding of her motivations, some of which she may not have understood herself. Even if being too frank in this way can possibly be awkward for you and temporarily painful for her (if she is a sensitive person, but not otherwise) it is likely to quickly clear cultural misunderstandings and set her on the right track regarding professional and cultural expectations in Europe and the USA.

3. If that still doesn't work then it's time to discuss the matter with senior management, as pointed out in more than one previous answer.

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    +1 Fascinating. I would never guess that for people from different cultural background, such repeated asking for help is appropriate behavior. Thanks. – Peter M. - stands for Monica Oct 27 '17 at 20:37
  • You are most welcome @Peter Masiar! It is a cultural strategy that is aimed to reduce competitive friction in evolving social situations. – English Student Oct 28 '17 at 0:24
  • Makes sense. As I am learning more, I am fascinated how cultures in Asia, especially SE Asia, work differently. – Peter M. - stands for Monica Oct 30 '17 at 15:42
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    As I have noted elsewhere @Peter Masiar, many Asian cultures give importance to overt or indirect expression of respect and non-agression, and to the (not so) complicated concept of 'not losing face.' In this particular case the new and junior Asian person asking a lot of questions in a European office is probably signalling that 'I am new here and well aware you are more experienced. I do not seek to compete with you or to challenge your senior position in the office. I want to be friends and want you to see me as your friend.' But it may not be interpreted rightly in a different culture! – English Student Oct 30 '17 at 21:27
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I have a rich personal experience of being afraid or uncomfortable to refuse to someone who is bothering me. When I was in school, I often helped my classmates with their homeworks and tests. They always called me whenever they forgot to write down their homework, which was literally every day.

It resulted only in my deep hatred towards them because I was incapable of dealing with my personal problems at that time and wasting my energy to gratify their laziness only made things worse.


It turns out, the best way to refuse is the direct way. I do the following:

  1. Upfront, I made up my mind about who I will help and in which situations. For example, when asked to repair a PC/laptop, I decided to only help the members of my family. That means I won't repair computers even of my closest friends simply because it's too bothersome for me.
  2. When approached by a person seeking for help, I stare them at the eyes directly with a neutral expression (at least I think it's neutral, but I couldn't see myself at those moments) and say, "No," without any clarifications of reasons. I find that simply saying "No" while looking at the eyes and slightly shaking my head works best. If I want it to look less cold, I make a "polite" smile, i.e. smile using only my lips, also known as "fake smile".
  3. If asked, "Why?", I give a short direct answer, which is usually, "I don't want to help you." I find it very important to not make up any excuses such as "too busy" because that person will hear it as, "Too busy now, but you may come back later." Excuses make me sound like I am a person who is easy to manipulate, I found.
  4. If a person is being persistent and starts asking why I don't want to help them, I recite my decision from the step 1 above, saying, e.g., "I decided that I will only help my friends with this," which clearly reads as, "you are not the one who I decided to help," which intentionally sounds cold and distant.

Actually, I never even used the step 4 because they usually give up on step 2. I just have this last step ready for a moment I'll need it.


I believe it works for these reasons:

  1. I make my decision upfront, so when a situation occurs, there is no doubt.
  2. I define my own limits of kindness and responsibilities, i.e. my personal psychological borders.
  3. I clearly express my personal borders to a person bothering me, if asked.
  4. I am being honest and direct about my reasons, not making up any excuses which make me sound unconfident and "pushable".

If you're afraid to sound cold and unfriendly, my best advice is to forget about the false idea of, "I have to be a nice guy". I am not a nice guy, I'm a regular guy who is capable of having a variety of emotions.

If I do actually sound cold or even rude, it's perfectly fine. I am simply not responsible for a person who is not even my friend. I can help them once or twice (if it makes me feel good), but I should not harm myself by helping someone else who I don't even care about that much.

5

Seen what you have already tried, I would suggest ignoring her from now on.

You already tried a lot of things to help her solve her problem by herself, but it looks like she refuses to listen. At this point COMPLETELY STOP HELPING in any way, shape or form. Don't even re-suggest her to google it. If she can get even a little bit of help out of you, she will come back. This might seem rude but it's necessary (I actually did this a lot at school, where there were some friendships that I didn't care about at all).

Sometimes you can avoid her simply by stating that you have a lot of work to do and don't have time to help her. If she insists, you can be more direct with things like:

I am sorry but I can't really help. I don't have the needed skills to teach you, and you asking me every time is getting a little annoying.

But before you get too direct, I would let someone (Boss, Project Manager? Don't really know yet the right roles) know of the situation, as suggested by Fildor.

5

She's coming to you for answers because (A) it works, and (B) she apparently doesn't have a better place to go for them. You can chip away at either (A) or (B).

Option A:

Just. Don't. Help. Tell her consistently that you don't have time for that sort of thing. If she does manage to browbeat or sweet-talk you into promising to help, don't follow through. If the ROI on coming to you is low enough -- read zero -- she won't do it.

Option B:

Talk to her. Find out if she is supposed to be getting mentored by someone. If she is, the guy is not doing the job. If she isn't, she needs to be. Tell her she needs to go to her supervisor and explain her need. If supervisor won't help, she needs to take some night classes.

Recommendation: For your situation I'd recommend both A and B. Or ...

Surprise Bonus Option C:

If you do decide that for "pay it forward" or other reasons you have sympathy for her plight, time-box your help. Tell her you can spend X amount of time with her at time Y, where you pick X and Y. In other words, you control the schedule.

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    Timeboxing is a very good idea: "I've got two minutes for one question today, then I have to get back to thinking about my own work." – Joe McMahon Oct 4 '17 at 16:20
  • Congratulations on joining the 4000 rep club @akaioi -- as a trusted user you get access to more moderator tools which I am sure you will use very wisely and beneficially -- I really appreciate your significant contribution and mature presence here on Interpersonal.SE! – English Student Oct 30 '17 at 22:20
  • @EnglishStudent wow! Grazie! – akaioi Oct 31 '17 at 2:35
  • You are most welcome @akaioi. Thus does a new SE site accumulate dedicated contributors and we already have quite a few such influential members here. – English Student Oct 31 '17 at 5:55
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I guess you mean to imply that the office language is Dutch, and she isn't proficient at it. This suggests that there are cultural messages/cues that are being missed, possibly on both sides. The most obvious issue is that you have a problem with a colleague at work and after trying to solve it yourself, it is time to get management involved - either yours or hers. That seems to me that it might be the "nuclear" option, depending on how subtle/competent your management is (or isn't).

Your nom de plume suggest you are female, let's pretend you are. So, what would you do with an aggressive male attempting to pick you up at the bar? Your apparent inability to say "No" needs to be fixed. She starts with small talk. Well, it seems that you really don't want to deal with this person at all. If so, then you need to...dare I say it??...interrupt her and tell her you are busy, and ask her if she has something work related to discuss. If she doesn't, then smile and say "Ok, then. Have a nice day!" and turn your attention elsewhere. If she does, then once she expresses it, tell her that (pick one) it would take too much of your time to explain to her, that she should consult her manager/team leader OR that you really couldn't answer without knowing more of the details, and you don't have the time or patience for that now.

The 2nd level of these two approaches (if the first fails) is to remind her that you've already told her you don't have time and physically (or electronically) take her directly to HER team leader/manager and ask her to repeat her question to him/her (for the first choice) OR to say "Gosh, you always are asking me questions about YOUR work. Are you testing me? You aren't my teacher or my student. Why are you doing this? I don't appreciate it, please stop it." After either of those, the nuclear option is the 3rd step.

2

I understand you've emailed her the link to StackOverflow and the official documentation, but for me, I'd go a step further and say:

  1. Write the question down. Post the question to StackOverflow (assuming you did your research, couldn't find duplicates, and followed the rest of their process). And then, email me the link to your question (and maybe, I'll take a look at it, I just can't make any promise).

  2. For a Java syntax question or a very basic question, I'd ask her to show me her flash cards. If she doesn't have any. That's the problem right there. And by flash cards, I mean flashcards, either electronic or paper flashcards, that she made herself based on real problems that she was actually having, not flash cards that she copied from others.

In other words, I'd ask her to demonstrate her process, but I'd be really careful not to reward her behavior -- even inadvertently -- and even if I could give her the answer she was looking for in 2 seconds or less.

Otherwise, I like the rest of the answers given regarding asking the company for help in mentoring her, or training her, or moving her, or perhaps even firing her.

1

If you tried all the nice ways and not-so-nice ways to stop here and she still doesn't, then continue with the harsh ways: de-escalation via explosives.

Some people learn through experience, others through pain. That is a life fact, and you are not doing anything wrong if you already exhausted all other options. If she is the second type, you need to apply 'pain' to make her learn.

She needs to learn that there are limits. It is a good thing to teach her that important lesson if necessary by force, although she probably will not understand that, yet. But better you teach her than someone who isn't as nice as you are. Also keep in mind that the problem is on her side, not on yours. You did your best, now it is up to her to change.

  • "teach her that important lesson if necessary by force" — Are you seriously suggesting physical assault because someone asks too many questions? – jwodder Oct 6 '17 at 15:17
  • Not physical. But if someone is perpetually annoying you, saying loud and clearly that you do not want to continue this is also "by force" from the perspective of that person. Probably my wording isn't perfect in this case, as I am not a native speaker. – TwoThe Oct 9 '17 at 9:57
  • @jwodder Use of force does not necessarily mean physical contact. That said, I've been in this situation myself and had to use actual physical force to disentangle myself from people repeatedly until they got the message that I am not a hugger. Some people learn through experience, others through pain. is right on the money. See also: Learn the easy way, or the hard way. For some people actual physical contact is required for this problem. – Underverse Jan 17 '18 at 1:44
  • As a note: simply speaking learning involves "realigning" of neurons. The strength required to do that depends on several factors, including how static those neurons are aligned. Some people actually need mental pain to break that alignment and learn. So the above - as harsh as it might sound - is a standard learning concept. – TwoThe Jan 19 '18 at 8:58

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