columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I am fortunate to be fairly well-known in my field and attend a lot of professional events. I try to meet as many new people and existing contacts as possible during these events, as part of my purpose in attending is to make the contacts I need to do my work. At the last few events, though, I've met individuals who really monopolize my time and are resistant to social signals that I want to end the conversation. For example, I'll say, "Sorry, there's Bob, I've been wanting to talk to him!" and they'll follow me and join that conversation too. Then I'll say, "I got to use the restroom, see you later," and they'll follow me there and wait outside.

Usually these are people I've never met who are in the same industry and are familiar with my work, but sometimes I have a minor professional connection with them (for example, my old company was their current company's customer, and we were in the same meeting once two years ago). Occasionally they have a purpose for the conversation, such as wanting a job at my company or needing help with a project, but usually they are just fans of my work who want to hang out with me but don't have anything specific to say about it.

Even worse, people have started to approach me when I'm walking somewhere nearby the event, ask me where I'm going, and then join me. This gets awkward if I'm doing something personal. I even once ended up not getting something I needed at the drugstore because someone had followed me despite my protests, and I didn't want them to know about the medical problem I needed it for. I've also had people sit down with me at an empty seat at a restaurant I'm eating at without asking, including once when I was celebrating my anniversary with my boyfriend!

Can you think of some polite but direct ways to say "please stop following me," "I want to end this conversation right now," and "I want to do what I'm doing right now alone"? I don't want to be rude, as it's a small industry and word gets around, but this is really impacting my ability to do my work.

Green responds:

It sounds like you need two different levels of response: (1) a polite version that will work with a lot of people, and (2) a more direct version that might feel uncomfortable but is still reasonable to say.

For the polite version, take another look at the wording you're using to signal that you want to end conversations. Some of your wording might just need to be tweaked a bit. For example, you're saying "Sorry, there's Bob, I've been wanting to talk to him!" -- and that will work for many people. But to make it clearer for the ones who won't get it, include a more explicit conversation-ender like "It was nice to meet you -- enjoy the conference!" or "Good to meet you -- maybe we'll connect again down the road" or "I need to grab someone I just saw so I'll have to end this here, but it was great to meet you."

It's certainly true that "I've got to use the restroom, see you later" should be a pretty clear sign that you're not suggesting the person wait for you outside the bathroom. Given that, I'd just be assertive about controlling your own time if you exit the bathroom and find someone still waiting for you. For example: "Nice talking to you earlier, I'm going to circulate -- enjoy the rest of the event!" and then walk off.

But if those strategies don't work, then you need to move to the more direct approach. For example:
* "I've got a lot of people I need to talk to today so can't continue our conversation and need to say goodbye now."
* "I need to talk with Jane one-on-one." (If needed, you can add "so unfortunately I can't ask you to stay with us.")
* "I need to handle some personal business so I can't have you accompany me."
* "Thanks for offering to walk with me, but I prefer to do this alone. See you back at the conference!"
* "My boyfriend and I are on a date, so we need to get back to our one-on-one time."
* "Hey, I need some space here. Thanks for understanding."

These approaches will work with 98% of people. If someone is still following you around despite trying the above, that person is breaking the social contract so flagrantly that you can just say, "I want to end this conversation now" or "please stop following me" or so forth. I get that you don't want to be rude and you don't want to get a reputation for being a jerk -- but at that point you're dealing with someone who's being pushy enough (and ignoring really clearly stated boundaries) that it's not likely to reflect badly on you if you tell them to cut it out. And people who have seen you deal with others politely are likely to assume the problem in this particular encounter wasn't you.

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