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There is another graduate student at my school working in the same area as me that is extremely nosy about my work. His curiosity definitely goes beyond the normal amount of "What are you working on?" chit-chat that I have with other graduate students. He frequently asks me to list exactly (his words) which papers I'm reading. If I walk past him in the hallway holding a book or a paper under my arm, he'll (very obviously) contort his neck to see what it is. If I'm working somewhere public, he'll walk up to the table and start reading what I'm working on.

This may sound silly, but I really feel like my privacy is being violated. I think this guy's behavior is creepy and rude. I could never imagine doing any of the things I listed above. What I do with my time is my business and no one else’s, and what other people do with their time is not my business. How can I deal with this guy without appearing unfriendly?

I don't want to appear unfriendly because this other graduate student works in the same area as me and I don't want to burn any bridges. In my very short time in academia, I have also never witnessed anyone acting unfriendly. I have no idea what is appropriate or how to calibrate my response. It is also difficult because the other student is not the same nationality as me, so maybe there are cultural things that I don't understand.

I can't merge my accounts to comment. I am indeed a woman.

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Why don't you want to appear unfriendly? – JeffE Feb 10 at 4:11
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May I ask if you are male? This seems at least a little bit relevant to your question. Sorry if this (ironically) seems like a nosy thing to ask, and of course if you prefer not to answer that's absolutely fine. – Dan Romik Feb 10 at 5:16
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@FJC: I have only my guesses to go on, but what the asker describes matches exactly how some guys (especially those from western cultures) would go about trying to get the attention of someone they are interested in. If I'm right, the asker should explicitly tell him if she is not interested. – user21820 Feb 10 at 11:31
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I agree, gender is important because flirtation is implied by the OP, but it is still fairly ambiguous. Also the OP specified the "creeps" gender but not their own. To answer the question, we really need to know if the other student is interested in their studies for academic/professional reasons, or unprofessional reasons. – Wetlab Walter Feb 10 at 11:54
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@FJC of course the behavior "should be dealt with fairly irrespective of gender", I never said or implied anything else. However, precisely how it should be dealt with (and precisely what other advice I will offer OP) may legitimately depend on the genders involved. I can tell you I'm not planning to write two separate answers addressing both scenarios. But as I said, OP is under no obligation to answer. Besides, I hardly think asking such a detail from a person posting anonymously, in an attempt to provide them with the most relevant advice, is inappropriate, but you are free to disagree. – Dan Romik Feb 10 at 12:16

13 Answers 13

In my experience, when it comes to dealing with people with boundary problems, you have to talk to them (in private).

This isn't nice (it might come off as unfriendly), this isn't fair (you just want to do your work, not deal with this issue), but it's the best course of action -- both for your job satisfaction and (in the long run) for the other person (if he can learn from feedback).

Framing the conversation is going to be difficult -- I'd suggest "I" statements ("I notice that you look at my material ...") and framing the issue as your perception ("I perceive this as nosy. I'd like to talk about my work, but I see this behavior as an intrusion of my privacy."). Given that probably most people would consider his behavior as "nosy", you might even point out that other people might regard this kind of behavior badly too. Hmm, just stick to describing the behavior and avoid making judgments about the person. You can change behavior, you can't (easily) change the person.

(Note: I might be biased here. I recently tried to solve a boundary problem via non-verbal communication, only to notice -- again -- that people with boundary problems don't notice non-verbal cues (correctly or at all). If they did, they would not have crossed boundaries in the first place. So non-verbal "cues" are either overlooked, ignored, or they react in the opposite direction of the desired effect. For example, they notice that a person is distancing himself from them, so they move in even closer. Addressing the issue verbally is anything but easy but I think it's the way to go.)

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+1, especially for people with boundary problems don't notice non-verbal cues. – JeffE Feb 10 at 12:14
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@JeffE from what I hear, sometimes they do and they simply don't care. – David Z Feb 10 at 21:14
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@DavidZ That's functionally equivalent to not noticing. – David Richerby Feb 11 at 21:50
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@DavidRicherby the difference is that when you point it out explicitly to someone who didn't notice, they try to change their behavior. When you point it out to someone who noticed but didn't care, they don't change. – David Z Feb 12 at 9:23

This is true everywhere, but especially so in academia: your life dramatically improves when you learn to say "no" to unreasonable requests. Consider this an opportunity to start learning this important skill.

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-1 While I agree 100% with you, the answer doesn't address the question, which restated according to your premise would sound like: how to appropriately say no to unreasonable requests. – Three Diag Feb 10 at 10:24
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+1. I agree 100% with you. The answer pretty much satisfies the question. Simply saying "no" to a question like "can I check out what you're working on" would send a solid message to the nosy fellow. – PandaLion98 Feb 10 at 12:01
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@ThreeDiag the answer is implied. When a nosy grad student asks you to list the papers you're reading, exactly what you've had for lunch, or anything else you don't to share, you should (politely) tell him "no." – Lev Reyzin Feb 10 at 13:29
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Implied answer? If you don't handle your cohort with tact, you risk losing a potentially valuable resource that your competition in the field may not have risked. If anything the brevity and offhandedness of this answer implies no tact whatsoever. – Aaron Hall Feb 10 at 14:39
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@luke thanks, of course you are right. Politely saying "no" means saying something like: "Sorry, I don't feel comfortable sharing my work to such detail." Again, I thought this was implied. I guess academia.se is the one place where I should be least surprised at being taken too literally :) – Lev Reyzin Feb 11 at 16:48

You are not being silly; this person is crossing the line and you should feel free to say "no" to his requests.

However, there's often a middle ground between saying "no" (and probably feeling undeservedly guilty about it, because you sound like a considerate person) and letting someone walk all over you. You can try to address the person's underlying needs instead of what they're asking for.

Consider why this person is behaving this way. I can think of two possibilities: (1) he is intimidated by the process of doing a literature search, and is worried that he is missing important papers, or (2) he has no idea what to do for his research, and is hoping to grab one of your ideas. I would go with the first assumption, but bear the second one in mind to be on the safe side.

Next time he asks what you're reading, you might do one or more of these:

  • Ask if he's having trouble finding appropriate literature. Ask what search terms he's using and suggest a few that you have found useful.
  • Suggest he request a one-on-one session with the librarian to learn how to do a literature search.
  • Ask what area he's focussing on in his research and offer to pass along any papers that you think might be of use to him, asking him to do the same for you.
  • Suggest that he ask his advisor or the PI for suggestions of articles to read.

If he continues to try to leech off of your hard work by asking you to provide him with a reading list, etc., then at least you know you will have done all you can.

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Option 3: this person is really bad at social interactions. – Davidmh Feb 10 at 12:10
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@Davidmh my thoughts exactly. Maybe OP can apply Hanlon's Razor here. – Mindwin Feb 10 at 15:07
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I disagree (but not enough to downvote). The OP is under no obligation to address the annoying person's "underlying needs". It may even be imprudent. If the person is seeking unwanted attention or doesn't know how to observe personal borders, helping them out would only encourage more of the same behavior. – henning Feb 10 at 18:11

It's hard to tell what his motives here are, and other answers have addressed several possibilities already. I just wanted to add my perspective as a fellow woman (FWIW, CS department in US) who's had to deal with awkward peers before. My suggestions, in escalating order:

Avoidance.

This means you doing work to minimize his opportunities for creating uncomfortable situations. Carry your papers in a plain folder so he can't see them, work in your office or with your back against a wall so he can't read over your shoulder. If he corners you in the hallway, make up an excuse to exit the conversation. (I used this one a lot when students would try to keep me after office hours...)

As an example, I have a rather large "personal space" radius, and I realize that's really my problem rather than anyone else's. So my tactic was to position myself across the table, in a single chair rather than bench, etc., to provide a natural barrier without having to ask someone else to change their (reasonable) behavior.

Redirection.

He is acting inappropriately, so make him do the work. Possible motives for his behavior can be categorized as, roughly, real academic interest but poor social skills, or just wants to bother you (for whatever reason).

To handle the first, make him show that he is seriously interested in your work. For example: "What are each of the papers you are reading?" "Right now, X. Say, you seem to be awfully interested in what I'm doing, maybe you should talk to your PI about collaborating with my group?" or "You know, there's a reading group for X, maybe you'd be interested in joining.", etc. This gives him a way to keep up on the research, without you being the unwilling mediator.

For the second, take control of the conversation. When he tries to read over your shoulder, close your laptop lid and say "Can I help you?" (or the milder, "Hey X, what's up."). Throw in an "I'm really swamped right now" to signal that you're not interested in an extended chat. If you're feeling nice, invite him to email you his questions and you'll respond later when you have time. Hopefully he will get the idea. Again, this leaves him an avenue for collaboration, without you getting cornered in a conversation you don't want to have.

Confrontation.

Some people have very poor social skills and do not pick up on hints, verbal or otherwise. If he still doesn't get it, be blunt. It will feel uncomfortable and like you're being terribly rude but... behaviors like craning his neck to see what you're carrying around or reading over your shoulder are rude. (Here's a quick sanity check: do you see other people in your department acting like this? No? Then his cultural background is not an excuse, and he shouldn't be doing it either.) It is okay to be blunt in response, especially if he is ignoring what you think are obvious signals. I think Daniel Wessel's answer has some good advice on what to say if it gets to this point, so I won't repeat it here.

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Although I never had to put words to it like that, this is just what I usually do. "Avoidance" may at first seem stupid if you're already angry and have a point to make, but in the end, what you want is studying in peace, and avoidance is most efficient in that regard. I had to learn this bit myself, but it's proven valuable for me. Also, Hanlon's Razor academia.stackexchange.com/questions/63086/… fits this spirit nicely. – Sir Jane Feb 13 at 21:03
    
Some people don't pick up on hints - those people are glad if you say literally what you mean ("blunt" but not in a way that can be misinterpreted). Example: "Do you have a problem with your neck?" - very wrong if someone doesn't get hints. "I don't want you to stare at my papers" - perfect for that person. They hear exactly what you say and won't think of you as rude, but as a person who doesn't want anyone to stare at their papers. If they did get the hints and ignored them, that reply is fine as well. – gnasher729 Feb 14 at 21:04

This is an unpleasant situation, and there are a million variations of how you can respond, half a million of which were already proposed in other answers, so I'll stick with a high-level answer.

How can I deal with this guy without appearing unfriendly?

I will throw a wild guess out there based on the little information you've given, namely that you are a person who values friendliness perhaps a little more than is good for you. In my experience, this is a very common phenomenon: many people in the U.S. (my guess of where you're from) and certain other western countries are educated to be polite, friendly, courteous, and non-confrontational, even when the situation gets very awkward. I will also venture to speculate that women in those societies are socially conditioned to value friendliness and politeness more (perhaps a lot more) than men.

However, the sad truth is that this is precisely a situation that calls for an unfriendly response. The guy you're describing is, quite simply, a jerk. We can spend weeks analyzing his behavior and constructing elaborate explanations for why he's behaving the way he is, as some of the answers and comments here do, but after all this analysis, he will still remain a jerk. There is only one kind of response that will make him back off, and that's an unfriendly, confrontational response. (Examples: "none of your business", "butt out", "sorry, I'm not willing to discuss this", etc. I'm guessing you've seen enough movies and TV shows to have at least a theoretical idea of how to construct such a response, so I won't bother going into unnecessary detail.)

To summarize: my feeling is that when you talk about "not wanting to burn bridges", this is code for "I've been conditioned by society to maintain a friendly demeanor in all situations, even at the cost of suffering extreme discomfort for myself." Well, this incident shows that you can't have it both ways: you can sacrifice your own comfort to appear friendly and accommodating; you can assert yourself and protect your space and privacy at the possible cost of antagonizing someone else; but you can't simultaneously enjoy the benefits of both approaches and not suffer the drawbacks of either.

In any case, if the guy is an unredeemable jerk then a "bridge" with him is one bridge you should have absolutely no hesitation burning, since it's pretty clear that you will never derive any benefit from having any relationship with him. And if on the other hand he is not a total jerk and there is some hope that he will improve his behavior, then quite possibly by asserting yourself and sending him a clear signal that he should respect your space and privacy, then with an unfriendly response you have a much better chance of eventually developing a healthy and friendly relationship with him. Good luck!

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I half agree. It's true that this seems to be just the kind of situation that calls for politeness to be dropped in favor of delivering the message. But I think she means the professional bridges here, no purely social ones. Picking up on your first paragraph, it's possible that rude behaviour might reflect more stigma onto a woman, which in turn burns or at least scorches her bridge to a potential colleague. – Sir Jane Feb 13 at 20:45

You need to be somewhat careful here. Many of the answers assume that he is trying to work with you. In which case the suggestions about formalising a collaboration are sensible (assuming you want to work with him). However, if you pursue that path and this is actually an attempt to be friendly, then any offer to collaborate or to talk about the paper with him later or other such responses will actually encourage him and possibly make his behaviour worse.

I would suggest a direct question, which can be done in a nonconfrontational way. Perhaps something like "which particular aspect of my work are you interested in?" If he is able to give a sensible answer then you could (if you wish) pursue that further with "Does that relate to your work in some way" and then go down the collaboration path.

If he is not able to give a sensible answer, then you possibly need to get out of having one-to-one conversations with him about your work and definitely need to actively discourage him. The easiest way to do this is to deflect to some public discussion. Do you have lab meetings or progress seminars? If so, you can say that you will be talking about it in the next meeting. If you don't have something like this, then you might have to confront him with something like "Since there's nothing in my work that's of interest to you, why do you keep asking about it?"

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IMO, this is a good answer, professional and directly addressing the issue. – Sathyam Feb 13 at 12:34

If this person is bothering you, learn to avoid, sidestep, and leave the area when they are around. Do not feel obliged to answer their questions, do not feel obliged to let them read your work, and do not feel obliged to 'be polite' just because this person happens to be working in the same academic area as you.

This person is allowed to be curious, but you are definitely allowed to have your privacy, and you are definitely not required to socialize with him just because you share a public space.

it is also important to let this person know that they are impeding upon your privacy. Not only because they might not know, but because of plausible deniability - let them know, firmly but politely, that their behavior has been bothering you, and that you do not wish it to continue. Be specific, and don't be overly concerned with 'being rude', just get your point across as clearly as possible.

If this behavior continues after you've told them that it has been bothering you, consider taking actions to avoid incidental encounters with the person. And if they're constantly impeding upon that privacy to the point of impeding your academic career, consider filing for harassment.

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The following is a personal perspective, tries to answer the question, what would have I done in the mentioned situation.

He frequently asks me to list exactly (his words) which papers I'm reading

I find nothing annoying in this statement, rather I feel the other person is extremely interested in my work and methods. I would be happy to give him the literature but not when I am working. I would say something like

Why don't we discuss about it while we have coffee tomorrow. I will send you some of the important works in the field tonight. By the way, I propose you to read P1 to have a preliminary understanding of what we would be talking about, of course if you haven't read already.

If I walk past him in the hallway holding a book or a paper under my arm, he'll (very obviously) contort his neck to see what it is

I would show him happily. It doesn't bother me if I am not holding something inappropriate.

If I'm working somewhere public, he'll walk up to the table and start reading what I'm working on.

Okay, now the line is crossed. If it bothers me, I would say something like

If you'd excuse me, I am reading something important, we will talk later.

I find it useless to waste your time thinking what would be the exact motivation behind his apparent nosiness, rather I would treat the problem objectively irrespective of gender or culture.

A side note. I find some very good ideas emerge out during the informal coffee break discussions, as a researcher I welcome such discussions, it is also a good way to judge if the person is genuinely interested in your work or not. Also, if possible invite one of your fellow graduate student in your group into the above mentioned discussion.

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While you might not find his behavior annoying, the asker clearly does, as made evident in their question, so while I understand where you are coming from, I feel like it's not pertinent to the question to say how you would react. – Zibbobz Feb 10 at 14:44
    
I see two strategies here: "discuss tomorrow", "propose to read P1": increases the cost of his behaviour. If he is really willing to invest the time, the OP might find a collaborator. Otherwise, the OP can just ask him whether he has done X yet when he approaches. "send you some of the important works": gives too much information to be useful, e.g. a long list of books and papers – user24582 Feb 10 at 15:34
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Based on my personal experience, I would not recommend inviting the person to coffee to discuss unless you really want to, as this would encourage him to continue (especially if he is being flirtatious as has been suggested in other comments). Including other graduate students could temper this a bit, perhaps by suggesting a reading group or that he sit in on your research group meetings. This would allow him to learn more about such topics if he is truly interested, while keeping OP's interaction with him clearly professional. – whrrgarbl Feb 10 at 16:15
    
@whrrgarbl A reading group is a huge amount of work. You shouldn't have to go to that much effort to get somebody to quit bugging you. – David Richerby Feb 11 at 21:52
    
@DavidRicherby Very true! I meant suggesting he go to an existing reading group, not suggesting that OP organizes one with him. I tried to be more clear in my answer but I guess it got lost when trying to fit in the comment limit. – whrrgarbl Feb 11 at 22:10

Many of the answers here involve trying to speculate on the person's motives, or to categorize his behavior. I suggest you take a course of actions that doesn't do that. I suggest that the next time he asks you what you are reading that you reply with something like "I'll be glad to answer that if you'll answer a question for me first." Then you proceed to say something like "I notice that you ask me what I'm reading very often, and I wanted to ask why you are so curious about it."

Listen carefully to what he says and the way he says it. Let him talk as long as he will, even if there is a long pause in the conversation (perhaps up to a minute). If he gives you a very short, non-responsive answer you need to ask for more information about why he is so curious. It's possible that his answer may reveal his true intention, and it's possible that it may not. This conversation should be casual, and should not be confrontational in any way on your part. It's just an honest question seeking an honest answer.

If the answer he give you does not cause you to feel comfortable with the questions he asks (and I expect that it won't) then you could end the conversation by offering an alternative solution. I'm not saying this is the only option, but you could end the conversation by saying something like. "It tends to be distracting to me to always answer the questions about what I'm reading. What I'd like to do is email you once a month with the names of the two or three best papers that I read in the last month. Would that be OK?"

This way you are trying to handle things politely, and to determine what he says his needs are. If his behavior should persist after this conversation, you should probably discuss it with one of your professors.

I also encourage you to talk with your fellow grad students to see if he behaves this way toward anyone else. Also, have you considered that this might be his way of flirting with you?

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What if you don't care about what he's reading? Then you have to sit through his long explanation just to be polite? If a person asks you to do something you don't want to do, simply and politely saying "no" should be the first course of action you consider. This not only has the same upside of not speculating on his motives, but also saves you time! – Lev Reyzin Feb 11 at 17:38
    
@Lev, I think you misunderstood what I said. I didn't say ask him what he is reading. I said ask him why he wants to know what I am reading. – Itsme2003 Feb 12 at 2:47
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What I'd like to do is email you once a month with the names of the two or three best papers that I read in the last month. — No, no, no. Absolutely not. There is absolutely no reason for OP to make this kind of promise, especially as a response to someone repeatedly violating their boundaries. – JeffE Feb 12 at 23:41
    
this answer is ridiculous. OP doesn't owe this other person anything. and if it is flirting, it should not be welcomed just because it's flirting. – sgroves Feb 13 at 1:12
    
What you don't seem to be understanding is that I am trying to propose a workable solution to a real problem. In an ideal world she doesn't owe the person anything. The poster of the question doesn't live in an ideal world, she lives in the real world. In the real world social interactions are messy and often complicated. I'm suggesting that she make an attempt to understand why the person is behaving the way they are so SHE CAN ATTEMPT TO FIND A WORKABLE SOLUTION TO THE PROBLEM. – Itsme2003 Feb 13 at 15:44

In graduate school, there are times for collaboration, and times for establishing independence from a peer. These are personal choices based on the nature of the work and also your personal instinct. Based on the way you've asked the question, I assume that you simply want your space respected without drama and without burning any bridges. I think it's important to speculate about his motivation, but it's not necessary. In any case it's your choice. If it makes you uncomfortable, then be professional, but be very direct so there is no confusion. Establish your boundaries as you see fit. If that doesn't work for you, then you've given him a chance and it's time to discuss it with someone of authority in your area. You might as well get used to establishing your boundaries now, there will be more opportunities going forward.

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Welcome to Academia.SE! If you accidentally created two accounts, please follow these instructions to merge them so that you'll be able to edit and comment on your own posts. – ff524 Feb 12 at 6:52

Firstly, excellent question. Secondly, I experienced a similar issue during my doctoral study. Another PhD student (call him S) requested to see my paper work while work in progress prior to paper submission. To be frank - he was neither humble when talking with other people nor an amicable person.

My strategy was avoidance. We worked on the same institute. Because I assumed that he would go the advising professor and/or me posterior to reading my draft paper. And he would say something like 'Let's give me an author credit because I did a paper review'.

Worth to mention - he was not aware about the details of my work --- he was not aware about the domain of my study (neither the paper nor the thesis). He did not use LaTeX in contrast to me. (No need for a Word vs LaTeX discussion with this guy.) We worked on different topics. Thus, he was not able (from my perspective) to give me a proper feedback concerning paper details.

Concerning my ability to write an adequate English grammar - That's not the best but paper reviewers gave me always much feedback concerning improvements for the applied grammar (apart of various hints regarding the content itself). All the time during my doctoral study - confidants (1 person with doctoral degree & 2 persons without doctoral degree) were available who reviewed my paper work. They got an author credit or a reference within the acknowledgment section.

There was no need to show S my paper work prior to an acceptance.

I was listening his words and my chain of thought was 'no way --- nope'. Fortunately, this issue was never requested by him. (But some other stuff, which are another issues.)

Finally, as far as I know, S (last seen in 2011) did not finished his PhD in contrast to me. :-) Hence, some problems are temporarily.

Please differ carefully which strategy you are using --- avoidance is one option. But you have also the option of confrontation or redirection as mentioned by whrrgarbl.

Perhaps, you wanna escalate the issue. But then you should write down the history of all events, which are happened - only facts without any animosity.

Wish you all the best.

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This might not be relevant if that person is too creepy, but:

Have you considered turning this problem on its head?

What I mean is, you're two graduate students working in the same area at the same place. But from your description it looks like you're not actually collaborating at all. S/he might be going about it in a very misguided way, but -

Why not try to arrange for actual proper collaboration? - working together on something that's interesting for both of you or for your wider research group / area overall?

It might just be that in this context you could develop a better rapport. I'm not saying that's sure to happen, but why not give it a shot?

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Apart from above stated problems like gender issue, this condition can also be due to the person's inferior complex that he treats you as an academic competitor. I guess this because, you have mentioned that both of you work in similar research area. It seems, the guy is more smart in knowing what sort of experiments or bench work you do or to know about the current status of your project. Because if at all you do design some experiments that leads to sufficient data published in high impact journal, then obviously his project will lose the significance as you both share some research area similarity.

This absolutely happens in several labs, where 30-40% of project topic is same. So just be proud of yourself as you really do good job in lab that others envy at your dedication towards your work, they really fear your sincerity. You should learn to deal this smartly by taking lead in your activities. Like,

  1. When he peeps in to your book, before he asks you should ask him about this research with broad smile and with cool

  2. When he asks you for the exact literature reference, either you can say" same as you told yesterday" or just have some low indexed article and give it to him whole-heartedly.

Note: All these suggestions are only if you wish to be diplomatic and have some cordial rapport with the person. Or else learn the art of saying NO, as above mentioned by our friends.

Good luck:)

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I don't see how deceiving someone (giving them the wrong article) is diplomatic or helps to maintain "cordial rapport". Moreover, i neither helps the person to learn that their behavior is unwanted, nor does it help the OP to change the unwanted behavior. – henning Feb 10 at 18:21
    
Being diplomatic only in a condition where you don't want to mess up with the person. I have mentioned clearly that it is very much better to learn in saying no. Also it is all about individual's decision and perspective. We can just give our suggestions and opinions. – Akshayaa Ganesh Feb 10 at 18:27
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This is bad advice. It doesn't address the actual problem, it doesn't send the message of "Quit bugging me!" and it involves lying. – David Richerby Feb 11 at 21:57

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