Real Simple etiquette expert Catherine Newman shares these tips to politely stop highly personal conversations with near-strangers.

Thayer Allyson Gowdy

Q. My son receives outpatient therapy for his health condition on a weekly basis. Each time, I end up stuck in the waiting room with another mom who likes to talk very openly with me about her personal life. People in the office hear her speaking candidly about private topics and move away from us, which I find embarrassing.

I’ve tried to act uninterested by not making eye contact, by reading a magazine, or by attending to my daughter, who is also in the room. But this woman never picks up on these nonverbal cues. How can I get her to stop sharing intimate details of her life with me?


A. You poor thing. As if you didn’t have your hands full enough with raising two children and juggling therapy appointments, you’re also someone’s captive audience! My advice? You need to free yourself—less because of what other people might think than because the situation is genuinely unpleasant for you.

Since the chatty mom has clearly challenged your boundaries and hasn’t picked up on your sensible (and obvious) cues, you will need to be direct with her. “I’m so sorry,” you can say, gently. “Please don’t think I’m being rude, but I’m too tense and preoccupied by the situation with my son to engage in conversation, and I’d really prefer to sit quietly.” This, by the way, is true: Whatever is going on with your child, you don’t need the added stress of trying to absorb someone else’s emotional ramblings.

And keep this in mind: You are probably not the first person this woman has over-shared with. So she may well be accustomed to others setting limits for her or asking her to kindly back off.

—Catherine Newman

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