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Q. How do I deal with coworkers who don’t respect my boundaries?

A. This happened to me once, in an office where I fell in love with…a stapler. It was a wonderful piece of equipment: sleek, efficient, functional. Then one day it disappeared, turning up later on a colleague’s desk. When I asked this person about it, she said she had assumed that since the company issued the office supplies, she could take the item without asking. I didn’t see it that way, and even after I got my stapler back, I was miffed at her.

Sound familiar? When people work closely together, there are tons of opportunities for them to overstep boundaries. It’s crucial to address these breaches when they happen—you have to see these people every day, and you don’t want to tender resentment for months, as I did after the stapler incident. Here’s how to deal with five common situations.

Al in accounting thinks I let my kids walk all over me. Over time, coworkers often get to know you, and they may feel so comfortable that they begin to express opinions about your personal life. They shouldn’t. If somebody gives unsolicited advice—about your parenting style or how you train your dog or whether it’s foolish of you to buy a house with such an old boiler—put your finger to your lips and say, “Shhh. I don’t want the boss to think that we spend all day gossiping instead of working.”

Sadie the receptionist hangs out in my cubicle—for hours. Do you have a coworker who likes to stop by and gab, oblivious to the fact that you’re buried in paperwork? Send her on her way without hurting her feelings by saying, “Sadie, I’d love to catch up, but I’m swamped right now. Can I come find you if things slow down after lunch?” (Then just remember to follow up later.)

Jesse in marketing groans whenever I eat a hot pastrami sandwich at my desk. Jesse isn’t behaving professionally, but he may have reason to be annoyed. Think: By eating in your work space, are you making the entire office smell like a deli? If so, have your lunch in the break room or simply opt for less odiferous food. Salad, anyone?

Cassie from graphic design gives color commentary on my clothing choices. If someone tells you there’s a run in your tights, consider it a well-intentioned heads-up and thank her. But judgmental comments about your attire (“Wow, those shoes are, um, interesting”) are off-limits. Make that clear with a lighthearted yet pointed rejoinder: “Thanks for the fashion advice, Ms. Klum.”

Kim from IT wants to talk about her sex life. Some colleagues tend to overshare. Fortunately, you’re not obliged to listen. As soon as someone starts to blurt out an in-appropriate personal revelation, stop her: Touch her arm gently to show you’re sympathetic, then remind her where you are. Say, “You should be discreet about what you talk about in the office. This is private information, and I’m sure you wouldn’t want someone else to overhear.”

Michelle Slatalla

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