Your office colleague is not your friend

Miss Manners on colleague/pal confusion and other etiquette fails


Andrew Tolson

“I was getting a massage when I felt one hand leave my shoulder and the masseuse began speaking—but not to me,” recalls Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert who has counselled Fortune 500 companies and the U.S. Department of Defense. “I realized she was talking on her cellphone!” It’s just the kind of behaviour she advises clients against. “Some of the most egregious etiquette fails in the modern workplace are mobile-device based,” she says, “like answering emails during a colleague’s presentation or speaking loudly on one’s phone at inappropriate times.”

Most of us have a handle on other universal professional etiquette truths: don’t microwave a tuna melt in the communal kitchen, be discreet about party invites not extended to everyone, and check the tightness of those pants. But the modern workplace—with its social-media communities, open-concept workspaces and blurred lines between colleagues and friends—offers new conundrums. That’s one reason Judith Martin, author of the long-running Miss Manners column and many etiquette books, co-wrote (with her son Nicholas Ivor Martin) Miss Manners Minds Your Business, a guide to leaping gracefully over work gaffe landmines.

One of the biggest social blunders she identifies is confusing colleagues for friends, expecting intimate disclosures or social invites. “Colleagues have lots of common interests, but when someone leaves the organization, they often don’t anymore,” says Martin. “That’s because they didn’t have friendship but collegiality—and that’s a good thing, that’s what co-workers are.” Martin hopes her book will help readers distinguish false professional etiquette obligations, like after-work happy hour. It’s okay to skip it if you’d rather go home, she suggests; professional politeness isn’t synonymous with sacrificing free time. The same is true of office distractions. Want to avoid doting parents with reams of baby photos? Provide a pleasant but non-committal “Oh, that’s nice,” then appear distracted. “While it is rude to seem bored,” Martin writes, “It is not rude to seem too busy.”

Another potential problem area is social media, where professional and personal info overlap. While updating your Facebook status with a rant about your manager is understood to be a bad idea, the culture of online oversharing is starting to bleed off the screen and into the cubicle. “Some clients tell me that young professionals seem to divulge a lot of little things that they think are important but in fact are not,” says Linda Allan, a Toronto-based certified management consultant, who notes that the common practice of tweeting banal musings or taking Instagram photos of meals is a training ground for poor self-editing skills. Behaviour such as detailing your commute or the had-to-be-there anecdote about your pet tends to be generational, she finds, more prevalent now than 10 years ago. “You don’t need to verbalize everything—it’s a time-waster,” she says.

The 140-character mindset can also result in too many work missives, says Allan, who advocates spending 10 extra minutes to compile ideas into a single note instead of firing off an email for every thought.

In the spirit of unintentional sharing, the open-concept workplace can offer a parade of irritations. Personal idiosyncrasies are on constant display. “You’re looking out at a sea of desks while trying to concentrate on a phone call and your vision is activated,” says Allan. Some co-workers are gathered for a YouTube clip; others are gesturing excessively at the communal meeting table. “Suddenly, silly thoughts enter your head, like ‘That sweater doesn’t look very good on him.’ ” You can’t change the office, but you can check yourself. “Your full focus should really be on the conversation you’re having,” says Allan, noting that inefficiency is the ultimate workplace manners fail.

Common sense dictates the golden rule—treat people as you’d like to be treated—is the most important etiquette standard, but Miss Manners says it’s not enough. “If you landed in the 18th century or modern Japan with just ‘Do unto others,’ you wouldn’t know what to do.” Ethics are important, but it’s the socially adept who win favour and influence people.

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Your office colleague is not your friend

  1. So true, how many of us have left a job and suddenly “lost contact” with co-workers who were constant social participants? Without the bond of collegiality, the bonds of friendship seem to evaporate. True friendship has a much more solid foundation than sharing a desk and despising the same boss.

    • 99/100 friends are work will not be there a year after you have left. As they usually are not real friends to begin with.

  2. Do yourself a favor. Think for yourself. When etiquette experts are making big bucks we are showing our immaturity and absence of common sense.

    • While I don’t disagree with you, the comment you make is a double edged sword…
      The self absorbed & narcissistic people the comment is directed at are the very ones the most in need of pointers.

  3. Architecture & interior design play a major role. The design of the workplace environment helps foster the activity described in the article.

    Open offices where partitions between colleagues are torn down; no closed office for the manager/boss; the “break-out” areas to hang out and provide an area to feel relaxed; etc… All this is done in an effort to make you feel like your boss is your friend, and foster stronger relationships (ideally friendships) with your colleagues.

    One goal is to stem the rate of turnover, and encourage people to stay at their jobs. It’s harder to quit a job where you feel like everyone (including your boss) is your friend, than quitting a job where there are 8′ high cubicle walls everywhere, no break-out facilities, and your boss hides behind a closed door. There are other not-so-noble goals related to such design, but this is one of the biggest.

    • Also done to stop goof off time behind closed doors. Like watching porn on company time is much harder to do on open office environments. Or spending 3 hours on the phone with BF or GF.

      Not scientific but:

      25% of the people will goof off any chance they get.
      25% of the people will use closed doors for gosip and non productive activities.
      25% will go with the flow
      Only 25% are self motivated enough they can be left alone and get it done.

      Which is why open offices exist, to reduce calls to the GF/BF, reduce porn surfing, reducing non-company activities without the boss managing people like children. Most employees are not self motivated and need the peer pressure of open office to remain productive.

      But if you are self motivated, not the nicest places to work.

  4. What at glib & ultimately dumb comment in the second last paragraph regarding focusing back on whatever task one is involved with instead of the distraction:
    “Your full focus should really be on the conversation you’re having,”

    Really?! Well duh, but it is called a distraction for a reason Judith Martin & in typical fashion of the these so called ‘experts’, she hedges her bets & uses weak language such as ‘should really be’.

    I am fully against the notion that people should simply shrug off trying to chg the office-basically saying that it is the way it is & we all have to deal with it:

    The biggest lie & most inefficient concept of all time is that of the ‘Open Office’. There is study after study showing how bad it is for concentration, efficiency, inter office relationships, etc.
    Instead of ignoring the obvious elephant in the corner, I would suggest that anyone subject to this ridiculous type of workplace issue an immediate improvement request to HR & have all your co-workers do the same.

  5. Its because of Machiavellian management, get people to hate each other and they will not organize against you. Practiced everywhere to some degree in my 37 year career. Never trust anyone at work, but don’t come off that way. Make your peers and bosses think you are a buddy, but keep your thoughts and ideas to yourself.

    Also recognize when tactics like passive aggression are used. Nasty shrink stuff but unscrupulous give themselves up when you know the psychology behind it. The work place is really a war zone and why so many victims of it become burn outs. Demoralized, mentally worn out you don’t even realize it. I almost burned out at 32 until I caught on to the reality of how work places are really managed.

    Yep, managers like it when they get workers against each other as thats how successful management really works, as each subordinate will squeal, slander to be the managers pet and a nice raise of course.

    You have to learn hard core psychology to be successful in the work place. You can be sheep for the slaughter or the wolf. Its why they like family people in debt, without economic liberty you will be more complaint at work.

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