Etiquette Hell

General Etiquette => All In A Day's Work => Topic started by: Rhindle on October 24, 2012, 10:15:12 PM

Title: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: Rhindle on October 24, 2012, 10:15:12 PM
Just recently, my coworker requested a meeting between her, me, our boss, and our boss's boss.

The relevant background: we were on friendly terms when I was hired to help with her workload. Over time, and as I was given enough additional duties in a different area to change me to full time, her attitude changed. She began to blow hot and cold, became very critical of how I did our common duties, and regularly snubbed me when I entered our shared office.

Eventually, I moved to a different office in the building but we still had our common duties. She and I have to work as a team. I treated her more coolly but still cordially. If she didn't want to build a friendship, I would accept that.

Then we had a computer crash and lost two days' worth of files. She and I began to reconstitute those files. Unfortunately, I remembered a file I needed to redo, and that file overwrote one of hers. Oops.

She burst into my office and screamed at me to just stop. I tried to tell her it was only one file and I wasn't doing any more. She kept telling me in a painfully loud voice to just stop. So I raised my own voice and said "Don't yell at me!" Our boss overheard this and intervened. This was Friday. I came in on Monday to find an email from Coworker apologizing for her yelling at me. This was CC'd to Boss and BigBoss. I emailed her back to thank her for the apology.

But I have not forgiven Coworker. Her prior nasty behavior and this outburst just made me realize I never want to try again to be friends. I'm civil and professional but not friendly towards her.

Well, she called  for  this meeting because she wanted to know why the change, why my attitude was so bad, and so forth. Before this meeting, I had spoken to both Boss and BigBoss at different times. Coworker is known to be temperamental and officious in general. Anyway, we aired our perspectives in the meeting. Coworker wants me to be more polite. She says she has asked me for things nicely so why can't I be nice. I pointed out that she had damaged our relationship with her vicious outburst.

OK, so here's my etiquette question out of all of this:

If she says "Good morning" cheerily with a big grin, am I sufficiently polite to say "Good morning" in a flat tone with no expression? If she comes to my office door with a big grin and a sweet expression, am I being rude to politely say "Come in, have a seat, what can I do for you?" without smiling. And, if I need to go to her office, what do you suggest? Sometimes I need to ask her something, sometimes I need to speak to the other coworker now in my former desk.

Also, she'll ask me "Hi, how are you doing?" I just quickly say, "Fine, thank you." Then go on my way. I don't want to engage in chitchat with her.

So how is all that on the politeness scale, EHellions? I thought it was all acceptable but would welcome your feedback. I do try keeping my expression neutral but I guess my dislike is showing through.
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: sourwolf on October 24, 2012, 10:19:54 PM
In my opinion you'd be in the clear.  She sounds like quite a piece of work and I don't envy you for having to deal with her.
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: Surianne on October 24, 2012, 10:20:26 PM
Does it really hurt you in any way to smile?  I have coworkers I dislike, but I still give them a polite smile rather than keep my expression neutral, which yes, does make it obvious you dislike her -- especially if you're deliberately using a flat tone to say good morning, and you smile to everyone else.

It would probably help the office atmosphere if you could treat her the same as you would another coworker, as it relates to the friendliness/smiling scale.  As a boss, I'd probably respect you more if you smiled rather than held a grudge. 

I don't think you need to carry on long, chatty conversations with her, though.  Just don't make it obvious (with the flat voice and lack of expression) that you dislike her.  I don't think that would be appropriate at work.  Sometimes we just have to work with people we don't like, and deal with it.
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: Mental Magpie on October 24, 2012, 10:24:55 PM
Does it really hurt you in any way to smile?  I have coworkers I dislike, but I still give them a polite smile rather than keep my expression neutral, which yes, does make it obvious you dislike her -- especially if you're deliberately using a flat tone to say good morning, and you smile to everyone else.

It would probably help the office atmosphere if you could treat her the same as you would another coworker, as it relates to the friendliness/smiling scale.  As a boss, I'd probably respect you more if you smiled rather than held a grudge. 

I don't think you need to carry on long, chatty conversations with her, though.  Just don't make it obvious (with the flat voice and lack of expression) that you dislike her.  I don't think that would be appropriate at work.  Sometimes we just have to work with people we don't like, and deal with it.

I fully agree.  I don't know if I could have put it better.
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: Amara on October 24, 2012, 10:25:36 PM
I would probably try to keep all my communications with her on a "nice" level. That is, keep it the same way you'd keep it if she was your boss. Don't use flat tones with her, but rather neutral ones that sound nice. But keep all communication on a professional level. If she asks how you are, there's nothing wrong with "Fine, thanks." And nothing else. It may be short but it works.

What I think is important to remember is that now Boss and Big Boss are aware of this. If you can see past her to them, think about what is important to you now and down the road that they know. If it is that you are able to handle things in a very professional, polite manner then it is you who will come out of this the winner. Whether or not she "benefits" from your niceness (and even if she thinks she won because you are nice), the fact is that you will emerge the winner in your boss's eyes. Keep your eye on that goal. It will make any petty moves by her much easier to bear.
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: kareng57 on October 24, 2012, 10:31:17 PM
Agree with some PPs.  A half-smile with a nod should be fine to indicate acknowledgement.
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: Slartibartfast on October 24, 2012, 10:42:32 PM
You don't have to be all cheerful and smiles and gratitude, but you do have to treat her no worse than you'd treat the cashier at the grocery store or the person sitting next to you on the subway.  Saying "good morning" with no inflection and anything less than a polite smile can come across as horribly passive-aggressive.

Not saying you need to be all smiles all the time, but you can use your social smile (the kind where your lips turn up but the expression doesn't reach your eyes) and a politely neutral tone of voice - which is not the same as having no inflection.
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: Mental Magpie on October 24, 2012, 10:49:30 PM
You don't have to be all cheerful and smiles and gratitude, but you do have to treat her no worse than you'd treat the cashier at the grocery store or the person sitting next to you on the subway.  Saying "good morning" with no inflection and anything less than a polite smile can come across as horribly passive-aggressive.

Not saying you need to be all smiles all the time, but you can use your social smile (the kind where your lips turn up but the expression doesn't reach your eyes) and a politely neutral tone of voice - which is not the same as having no inflection.

Pod to this, too.  You do not have to be friendly to be polite.  Being polite means treating her like any other random stranger; being friendly means going beyond that (which isn't necessary).
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: Rhindle on October 24, 2012, 11:15:55 PM
I don't smile at random strangers but I do give them a brief nod. If they speak to me, I'll respond but I don't engage for long. I wasn't aware that I was rude to strangers because I don't smile at them.

Edited to add that I have read the other posts and will think about cultivating a more suitable expression and tone. To be honest, I'm not a smiley person and think a forced grin will look even worse, more like an aggressive grimace. To the mirror to practice then.
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: RebeccainGA on October 25, 2012, 07:28:04 AM
Don't feel obligated to change yourself totally if you aren't the sort that smiles at everyone normally. If one of my coworkers, R, was to not smile at me when she said good morning, I'd assume I'd done something horrible or that she'd had something horrible happen - because she.always.smiles. at everyone. However, if E or M ever DID smile at me, I'd wonder what was wrong with them - they never smile.

Just treat her like you would the mailman, or the cashier at the store - polite, low key, not effusive but not hostile.
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: camlan on October 25, 2012, 08:30:31 AM
I agree with you on being civil and polite. However, unless you greet everyone without a smile, it will be obvious that you have issues with this person.

I don't blame you for having issues with her. But your boss is going to notice this, if your co-worker doesn't bring it to his attention. And then it will seem as if you are holding a grudge.

This type of situation is very difficult for supervisors to deal with. I know, I've been the supervisor. It's hard to tell someone, "Look, you have to be nicer to Jane." It's hard to define what "being nicer" means and how to act that way. If your co-worker keeps complaining about this, you are going to look like the one who is in the wrong, at least a little bit, to your boss, because you won't seem to be trying to create a peaceful office atmosphere.

It's also difficult to tell a complaining co-worker, "Look, the two of you aren't friends. You don't have to be friends to work with someone. You just have to be polite and get your work done," because everyone has different definitions of "polite," as you are discovering.

You certainly don't have to be friends with this woman. What I'd do in your shoes is go to your immediate supervisor and tell them what you plan to do. You are going to bury the hachet  and more forward on a new relationship with Co-worker. You will be polite and professional and cordial, and do your best to prevent any further incidents. I think the suggestion of treating her with the same amount of courtesy that you would treat a salesclerk in a store is a good one--polite, but no chitchat. But if you have a special neutral face that you use only for her, I'd stop using it. It's too pointed and gives her a target. Maybe you even say "Good morning" before she does every so often--it shows you are making an effort.

Then, if your boss brings the subject up again and tells you to be "nicer," you can point out everything you are doing to do calm the waters, and ask for *specific* details to improve. Don't accept a general, "You need to be nicer;" ask what that means--saying hello every morning, getting her coffee, smiling three times a day--what exactly does your boss expect you to do? Because you are already being polite. That might get the boss to examine the co-worker's behavior a bit more and see if part of the problem lies there.

What you don't want is for the situation to escalate and get both of you sent to HR or to have it show up on your annual review.
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: Redsoil on October 25, 2012, 08:41:01 AM
To be honest, it does sound like you're being "frostily polite" rather than "pleasant".  There is quite a difference.

Would it help to think of her as a client, rather than a co-worker?  That was you could have your game face on more easily.  Keeping the office atmosphere more pleasant will benefit everyone, and it will get easier with time.  Not saying you have to give in, but "letting go" of resentment may help lighten the atmosphere a bit.
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: WillyNilly on October 25, 2012, 08:55:18 AM
Like others, I think it sounds as though you are being cool towards your one co-worker.  If you are cool with everyone - a flat, non-smiling "good morning" - well then you are just that kind of person.  But if you are warmly greeting others, and then cooling it down for her, that's noticeable and not ok.  Its unpleasant for more then just the one person you are being cool towards, and frankly its unprofessional. 

Treat her as neutral/warm.  It doesn't have to be gushy or over the top, but it needs to be nice enough that no one - not her, or those around both of you - openly realizes you dislike her.  Outside work feel free to be totally cold & distant, but at work you have to maintain a cordial work relationship.
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: Lynnv on October 25, 2012, 09:05:30 AM
I was told by a supervisor (many, many, many years ago) that the key to customer service is to be friendly without being friends with my customers.  It takes time, effort and energy to be friends.  I would not expend that on this person.  And, if she wasn't a colleague, I would not say you even owe her friendliness.  But treat her the same way as you would a client or customer and you will be fine. 

Pleasant and neutral, within the limits of your normal personality.  You don't need to chat with her or anything like that, but a normal pleasant "Good morning" is the kind of social lubricant that makes things go smoother in an office.

If nothing else, think about the fact that acting cold and frosty towards her (no matter how much she might have earned it) will make your whole office a less pleasant place to work.  Your coworkers will notice and they will feel like you are pushing your personal drama with her onto their working day.  Even if they agree with you.

I spent 10 of the last 12 years working with a man that I cannot stand.  We started out as actually being work friends, but over the years he expressed some things that could have gotten him fired and the company sued if any of us were inclined towards that kind of complaint.  People knew when I went to just being friendly with him.  But I never put them in the middle by showing just how downright angry he made me.  I pretended that he was a client who I didn't like, but had to work with and had to have cooperation from.  And it worked.  Friendly but not friends. 
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: lilfox on October 25, 2012, 11:25:59 AM
It's pretty difficult to work with someone you don't like, or who has been rude to you in the past, or worse, runs hot and cold so you never know what to expect.

With someone who runs hot and cold, your best strategy might be to be consistently just-warmer-than-lukewarm.  Especially if others recognize that the coworker is difficult to work with some (most, all) of the time.  It makes you look pleasant and tolerant, without the strain of trying too hard to be friendly (or unfriendly).   A moderately warm "good morning" with smile is sufficient most of the time - seems welcoming and is over in 5 seconds.  An infrequent amount of chit-chat is useful too, if the coworker is in a friendly phase - you're not investing too much there, it's just small-talk, but it could smooth some of your interactions.
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: Mental Magpie on October 25, 2012, 01:43:07 PM
Who ever above me said "Be friendly without being friends", I just want to say that that is exactly how we were told in training yesterday (for CorrectionOfficers) to handle the inmates  >:D
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: Lynnv on October 25, 2012, 11:35:41 PM
Who ever above me said "Be friendly without being friends", I just want to say that that is exactly how we were told in training yesterday (for CorrectionOfficers) to handle the inmates  >:D

At the time (this was very early in my working life), I was working at an amusement park.  I am not sure what that says about prisoners and/or people riding roller coasters.  :>
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: Rhindle on October 26, 2012, 12:10:48 AM
My tablet decided to run out of battery power before I could post my reply. Argh. So I'm trying again, at my desktop. Power company, don't you dare fail me now!

To the posters in general: Thank you for your perspectives. They give me some interesting things to think about. Also, something that I should have put in my initial post: this woman made me cry twice with her vicious comments. After the first time, I realized she was not truly a potential friend, and backed the EHell away from her.

Boss and BigBoss know about the second time; Boss actually witnessed it. Coworker has been written up for this. She thinks that because she apologized, everything should be all right between us two. It isn't. I know I can't force her to understand that. She wants my regard and my attention, but I have none for her. And I do want to discourage her from hanging around me.

By the way, yes, I now document my interactions with her, no matter how benign they are. Just thought I would throw that in there. There is no HR department to worry about; it's a small business of 30 people, so I'm not worried about HR. But documentation might come in handy if I ever need to justify myself later.

camlan: I will keep that in mind if Boss or BigBoss ask me to be nicer to Coworker. During the meeting, BigBoss did ask her to be more specific. So did I. Coworker wants me to paste on a grin when I greet her or if she needs to come to my office about work-related stuff. I am currently pondering if that is a reasonable request on her part or not. It seems unreasonable to me but that's why I came here.

Redsoil: Yes, you're quite right. I'm being frostily polite, not pleasant. I already understand this is the effect I'm giving off. I'm concerned about slipping into actual rudeness, not so concerned about being "pleasant" to this one person.

Lynnv: Thank you. It helps to know that other people have had to deal with some really heinous coworkers too.
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: PastryGoddess on October 26, 2012, 12:55:59 AM
Hmmm, I don't know about you OP, but when someone TELLS me that I need to act a certain way I tend to do the opposite.  So I can see your point about the whole smile thing.  It's like if you smile at her, is she getting her way.

Maybe instead of a smile you can do a smirk.  Or you can say hi and then do a quick quirk of the lips (try not to roll your eyes though)

Gosh! people like this are so annoying. 
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: Mental Magpie on October 26, 2012, 07:14:33 AM
Hmmm, I don't know about you OP, but when someone TELLS me that I need to act a certain way I tend to do the opposite.  So I can see your point about the whole smile thing.  It's like if you smile at her, is she getting her way.

Maybe instead of a smile you can do a smirk.  Or you can say hi and then do a quick quirk of the lips (try not to roll your eyes though)

Gosh! people like this are so annoying.

I do, too...or I do what they tell me to but I do it sarcastically.  ("You learned to dance sarcastically?")  Would it be rude for the OP to give her a big grin but make it obvious it is fake? 
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: BeagleMommy on October 26, 2012, 11:33:24 AM
OP, body language experts often describe a "true smile" meaning that the mouth is wide; sometimes showing teeth and the eyes are crinkled at the corners.  It is the smile we use when we are truly happy about something.  You do not have to give that detestable woman a true smile.  When she greets you, you can say "Good morning" and simply turn the corners of your mouth up slightly.  She probably won't even notice the difference.

As far as tone, try to go with "professional" rather than "flat".  It might take some practice, but I've seen it work.  This is how I usually speak with Annoying Coworker.
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: grannyclampettjr on October 26, 2012, 11:45:18 AM
Does it really hurt you in any way to smile?  I have coworkers I dislike, but I still give them a polite smile rather than keep my expression neutral, which yes, does make it obvious you dislike her -- especially if you're deliberately using a flat tone to say good morning, and you smile to everyone else.

It would probably help the office atmosphere if you could treat her the same as you would another coworker, as it relates to the friendliness/smiling scale.  As a boss, I'd probably respect you more if you smiled rather than held a grudge. 

I don't think you need to carry on long, chatty conversations with her, though.  Just don't make it obvious (with the flat voice and lack of expression) that you dislike her.  I don't think that would be appropriate at work.  Sometimes we just have to work with people we don't like, and deal with it.

I've had co workers who thought that *any* smile, small talk, etc, meant we were besties again.   Since this woman is so all over the board and extreme with her reactions, I think it truly would hurt emotionally to smile at someone like this, because I would never know what flavor of worms could come out of that can I just opened. 
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: camlan on October 26, 2012, 11:59:17 AM
Does it really hurt you in any way to smile?  I have coworkers I dislike, but I still give them a polite smile rather than keep my expression neutral, which yes, does make it obvious you dislike her -- especially if you're deliberately using a flat tone to say good morning, and you smile to everyone else.

It would probably help the office atmosphere if you could treat her the same as you would another coworker, as it relates to the friendliness/smiling scale.  As a boss, I'd probably respect you more if you smiled rather than held a grudge. 

I don't think you need to carry on long, chatty conversations with her, though.  Just don't make it obvious (with the flat voice and lack of expression) that you dislike her.  I don't think that would be appropriate at work.  Sometimes we just have to work with people we don't like, and deal with it.

I've had co workers who thought that *any* smile, small talk, etc, meant we were besties again.   Since this woman is so all over the board and extreme with her reactions, I think it truly would hurt emotionally to smile at someone like this, because I would never know what flavor of worms could come out of that can I just opened.

I'd feel this way, too. That any sign of a thaw would me that she'd assume we were best friends again, and the whole cycle would repeat itself.

I know the OP works for a small company, but think about how you would treat a co-worker whom you did not know, say if you worked for a company with hundreds of employees? You get on the elevator one morning and there's a co-worker you've never met and will probably never see again. But there's the chance you might meet up again, so you are polite. You give a little smile, maybe ask what floor they want and push the button. If the weather is particularly good or bad that day, one of you might remark on the two feet of snow or sunshine after 6 days of rain. Or not. That's the attitude I'd take with this woman.
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: figleaf on October 27, 2012, 05:19:20 PM
I feel your pain. I had a Boss a few years ago who would not let me leave the room if I disagreed with her.  She would keep me in her office not only until I verbally agreed with her, but until she could "tell by my demeanor" that I actually DID agree with her. Extra bonus was that our profession is all about being body language experts. It was an impossible situation.

In my case, my higher supervisors decided that it was not effective for us to continue working together and reassigned me to another supervisor. Within two months she had been removed from the organization because her behavior was not confined to me.

I think you are very wise to document each interaction with her. In your position, I would probably monitor my own behavior to make sure that you are not being PA, and are treating her like any person with whom you need to maintain a business relationship. This will elevate you in your boss' estimation. In the meantime, she probably won't be able to keep up the perky facade for long, and will lose it on you again, especially if you continue to be coolly pleasant. Then your bosses will contrast your behavior with hers and you will come out on top.

In your shoes, constantly reminding yourself that you are the better person helps to keep up the good attitude!
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: P12663 on October 27, 2012, 08:19:59 PM
OP, you've said that this woman wants you to return her grin.  Well, there is a big difference between a grin and a polite smile.  Smile->  :)  Grin ->  ;D  (and a 'polite smile' can be even smaller than a 'smile')

Besides the physical differences, a grin is something friends would share.  A polite smile is all you need in a professional encounter. 

She can grin at you all she likes.  You don't have to grin back. 
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: Ceallach on October 30, 2012, 12:28:42 AM
I think it's important to remember that the act of not smiling is a form of communication in itself.   Finding that balance of "neutral pleasantness" is slightly different for each person.    To keep the workplace civil you should try to err on the side of "flat expression that indicates neutrality" as opposed to "flat expression that may indicate internal hostility or resentment".   

However overall I think you're fine.   Just try to treat her the same as you would a random acquaintance or business associate who you need to interact with.   
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: It's good to be Queen on October 30, 2012, 05:38:35 PM
I worked with someone, X,  whom I really didn't like.  He and I were the same age, but he acted like he was still in his 20's.  He liked to brag about his partying, hit on all of the women in the office (and was married) and just generally had a personality I didn't like.  I treated him politely and professionally.  I gave him everything he needed.  He went to my supervisor and complained about me, saying I didn't like him.  I met with my supervisor and told him that no, I didn't like X but that I always did his work and treated him professionally, but I did refused to join his after work drinking parties or have lunch with him.  I also did not really joke around with him in the office like I would do with people I liked.  I asked him if X could give any examples of me not doing my job or not treating him correctly.  Turns out he couldn't.  I asked to have the complaint removed from my personnel file and it was.

You can never go wrong if you treat co-workers professionally and politely, but no one can force you to be friendly!
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: LEMon on October 31, 2012, 02:58:32 PM
Do you have a clear picture of what Boss wants you to do?  I would see that as of highest importance.  Your last comment made it appear that Boss does not support coworker's desire for the 'grin'.  I suspect Boss will be fine with business polite, but I would want clarification from (him/her).
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: MyFamily on October 31, 2012, 03:29:46 PM
Your coworkers is a bully.  She is bullying you into doing what she wants, which is to make her feel good about herself with no regard to what you need.  She is a bully.  No real advice, but just remember this, and if your boss really wants you to smile at her, I'd suggest using this word.
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: Rhindle on October 31, 2012, 09:25:32 PM
Neither one of my bosses care if I smile at her. They both defended my perspective to her at the meeting. Our bosses just want the work to get done without drama and with evidence of teamwork.

I think the issue has died down, at least for now. Today, I trained her in a new procedure which will save the company money, so if she complains in the future, I can point to the fact that she asked for the training and I gave it to her.
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: Marbles on November 01, 2012, 01:01:46 AM
We have had many threads here on ehell about strangers demanding that people "Smile!" and the threads invariably oil down to the very inappropriateness of demanding an expression of [pleasant] emotion from another person. It is an insult to your personhood and says that the other person doesn't care about what you are actually feeling.

Neutral and polite should be fine. I would not give her more than professional courtesy.
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: LEMon on November 01, 2012, 09:12:44 PM
If bosses don't care, stick with distantly polite/business polite.  She can grin at you all she wants, but it doesn't mean you need to respond in kind. 

If she causes drama regarding the issue and the bosses know you have been polite, she will be seen as the one with the problem.
Title: Re: My coworker thinks "polite" means "friendly".
Post by: Decimus on November 02, 2012, 12:48:23 PM
I think being "frostily" polite is acceptable if it's what you can manage; "professionally" polite is better but if you are so focused on BEING polite you may not be able to be better than frosty.

More important, I think, is that your co-worker has been written up for her behavior and your bosses know this.  So keep focusing on what you say, not how you say it.  If your co-worker complains "Boss, I said 'hi how are you' and she said 'good morning' back and it was rude!"  then your boss is going to be unsympathetic.  Similarly if she complains "I asked about her family and she said 'I'd prefer to focus on work just now'!"

Focus on "what am I saying that my bullying co-worker could repeat to the boss?"