saying hello and goodbye to coworkers: distracting or polite?

A reader writes:

I was hoping that you might be able to help me out with an etiquette dilemma.

I’m currently in a graduate program, and for the last year, I have been employed on campus as an office clerk. I usually work three or four hours a day, covering lunch for the regular staff. My shifts begin at 10 or 11 and finish at 2. Because of the timing of my arrival and departure, I generally only say “hi” or “goodbye” to the people I share an immediate workspace with (about 3 out of 10 people). If I see the rest of the office staff during my shift, I of course say hello and chat briefly. My reasoning is that I don’t want to distract other staff when I come and go, given that it’s the middle of the workday. Do you think this comes off as rude? Should I be making the rounds each time I come and go?

What you’re doing sounds fine: saying hello to the people in your immediate vicinity but not seeking out others.

For people who have jobs that require focus and concentration, even if only sporadically, it can be really distracting to have someone interrupt you with a greeting (which requires a response) just when you’re in the middle of focusing on something. And yes, that might sound grinch-like to people who aren’t that way, and indeed everyone is not that way, but enough people are — and have work that requires them being that way — that it’s worth being cognizant of it.

And anyone who’s going to get bent out of shape for not getting their very own greeting or good-bye has issues that are about them, not you. You’re there to do a job, and you’re pleasant to the people you encounter while doing that job, but there’s no need to seek people out specifically to toss pleasantries at them.

{ 61 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous

    I would appreciate if someone didn’t come around and expect me to look up from what I’m right in the middle of and remind my face how to smile after staring at a problem that seems unfixable just to say hello. So thank you!

    1. Anonymous Accountant

      Thank you, thank you, thank you! 1000000% agree. This is my #1 pet peeve. I get so annoyed do this, especially when my head is down and it’s obvious that I’m working on something and they say “Don’t you know how to smile?”.

      Huge pet peeve of mine.

      1. fposte

        “Don’t you know how to smile?” would be snotty no matter what you were doing. That’s really obnoxious.

      2. rebecca

        Also completely agree. We have someone fairly new in our office and she does this all the time (interrupts to ask how my commute was…. gives her “good morning, have a good night…health tips, “…blah, blah…) When I am in the middle of concentrating, and it is so obvious since my head is down, it seems so rude and clueless of her to continue to do this. We have someone else who compares people who have office manners to those who don’t as shy vs. normal. That is not shy. There is a time and a place for certain behaviors and types of voices. Outside voices, stage voices, obnoxious “look at me” laughing belongs in the playground or in a theater, not in the office.

        1. Liv

          Wow. You people need to learn what life is really about. I’m so sorry for you people who put work before other human beings.

          1. Laura

            I totally agree with Liv. Saying good morning, hello and good bye is a basic way for humans to remain humans. take that away and you become robots. I totally disagree with this article. I have to concentrate in my job as well, but a good morning from colleagues is never a problem. There are so many more worse distractions that we can discuss about rather than an innocent good morning or hello.

          2. Anonymous

            It’s not putting work before other human beings – we are in a workplace in environment where people are doing exactly that – working. Not everyone needs to say hello/good morning/good bye – we all see you, it’s not necessary to announce yourself especially if people are obviously concentrating on something. Stop being so needy.

  2. Long Time Admin

    It’s generally considered polite to say “hello” and “goodbye” to the people in your immediate vicinity, and to people you have eye contact with during the day. I know that when I’m concentrating on something, I don’t really like to be disturbed by someone who is passing my cubicle and doesn’t really need to talk to me.

    One place I worked several years ago had “Office Rules” posted on the wall, because many of the employees had never worked in an office before. The #1 rule was to greet your co-workers in the morning. Everyone worked the same hours, so no one was distracted when they were working.

  3. Dave

    Hello/good morning/good night when passing in the hallway. Walking by an open area and having someone look up, I’ll give greeting as well. Other than that it’s potentially bad form.

  4. KayDay

    I think what your doing sounds fine. I think it’s weird (and a little bit rude) when people come into the same room/immediate vicinity as me and don’t say anything at all. However, I also really don’t care if Susan down the hall is leaving or not, and it could be distracting if she comes over to say “bye” to me. If there are co-worker you really work with, they might want to know when you have arrived and departed, so it’s worth greeting them (in which case, it’s more about saying “I’m here” than actually greeting them), but other than that, I think your method works fine.

  5. KellyK

    Sounds perfectly reasonable to me. On my way in and out each day, I say “good morning”/”have a good night” to:

    -the receptionist if she’s there
    -people whose office doors are open, who I walk past and see that they’re there.
    -anybody I happen to pass in the hallway and/or kitchen

    I definitely don’t think it’s worth tracking people down to say goodbye on a daily basis even with 9 coworkers. Any more than that and it becomes an effort in and of itself.

  6. fposte

    Speaking generally, I’d also say hello/goodbye if somebody had been alone in the office until I arrived or was going to be alone after I left.

  7. Jamie

    If you are a key holder and the second to the last person to leave you should say goodbye to the remaining key holder so they aren’t surprised that they have to stay while the non-key holders finish so they can lock up.

    But that’s a very specific pet peeve of mine, I’m aware.

    Making it more general – if your arriving or leaving affects someone else in a work related way you should let them know. Otherwise my rule is eye contact – if it’s made I’ll say something, if not I leave people alone.

    But then I’ve been accused of not giving salutations the importance they deserve so I may not be the standard bearer on this.

    1. Sascha

      My rule is eye contact as well. My office is right across from the women’s bathroom, and I am forced to keep my door open, so exchanging pleasantries with everyone who comes and goes from the bathroom would be wearying to me, an already very curmudgeonly person. And just plain awkward – it’s the bathroom.

    2. Rana

      Your rules seem imminently reasonable to me. Greet the people who need to be greeted/informed of your whereabouts, and greet the rest on an as-needed basis.

  8. Lynn

    On a similar note: I work at a job that requires us to leave the office a few times during the day. I have been working with a person for about five months who will ask if I need anything every time he leaves the office during the day. At least once a day he’ll ask me and the other people in the office one-by-one if we need anything and we have never said yes, yet he still does it. It is so annoying because he will ask again if I ignore him, even interrupt the work I’m doing to get an answer. I used to say “no, thank you” but now I just say “nope.” How do I get him to stop?

    1. Jamie

      If you really wanted him to stop you could start needing things. Weird things – so it would be like a bizarre scavenger hunt for him each day.

      Feminine products, obscure UFO magazines, potting soil, cuticle cream, and very specific and complicated coffee orders.

      But that is only fun in theory – in reality I have no advice except to keep refusing and ignore him.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      Personally, I’d say, “It’s nice of you to ask, but you don’t need to — I pretty much never need anything from outside.”

      Frankly, you can also make it obvious that he’s interrupting your work through cues like taking a minute to look away from what you’re doing, saying “Sorry, can you say that again? I was focused on this document,” etc. That’s obviously far more passive than directly saying “stop interrupting me every time you leave,” but it might be a more polite way to make him realize you’re, you know, working.

      1. Anonymous

        Not a personal attack on you Alison, but can I air a pet peeve? You’ve described the passive-aggressive way as being “more polite” and that makes me want to cry. The first sentence you offered WAS very polite! There is nothing impolite about being straightforward. You didn’t suggest “Would you PLEASE stop asking me the same stupid question every day????” which would have been both direct and impolite.

        I’m on a (surely doomed) mission to wipe out the notion that direct and straightforward = rude :) Thank you for letting me vent.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          I nearly always prefer straightforward. But the first suggestion I made here might not solve the problem — it doesn’t actually say “stop asking me.” So if it doesn’t solve the problem, then I do think it’s an option to go to the second suggestion. Otherwise your only alternative would be to say words that many/most people would be really uncomfortable saying (and thus probably wouldn’t): “Please stop asking me this.”

          (And to be clear, in my original comment, I meant it might be more polite than “please stop asking me this,” not more polite than the first suggestion, which would be my first thing to try.)

          1. mrsfoutdire

            Thank you anyways, but you know you don’t have to keep asking me. I’ll definitely let you know (or ahead of time) if I do. Thanks.

    3. LCL

      I have worked a few jobs that required being stuck in one place all day. At all of these jobs, it would be considered the height of rudeness to not ask your coworkers if they needed anything if you were fortunate enough to be able to leave.

      So your coworker is behaving in the way that he believes is polite and respectful and appropriate for work. The only way you will get him to stop asking you is to tell him that you prefer to run your own errands and not to ask you anymore.

      And speaking as a slightly hard of hearing person, if I asked someone a question and got no response, I would assume the person didn’t hear me and would ask again. Which is a more favorable interpretation than the not-hard-of-hearing take-if you don’t respond to a person with normal hearing they sometimes assume you are deliberately ignoring them. This was discussed at length last week…

      1. Waiting Patiently

        And speaking as a slightly hard of hearing person, if I asked someone a question and got no response, I would assume the person didn’t hear me and would ask again. Which is a more favorable interpretation than the not-hard-of-hearing take-if you don’t respond to a person with normal hearing they sometimes assume you are deliberately ignoring them. This was discussed at length last week…

        I was thinking the same thing. I would think the person would ask again or louder which would further interrupt the person’s work. I like the first straightforward response better.

      2. Lynn

        I appreciate your responses, but as I said in my original post, we all leave the office at least a few times a day. I will return to the office after being gone for hours, walk right by his desk as I enter our office space so he knows I’ve been out, and still when he goes to leave several minutes later he will ask. It’s funny because our manager made a comment to me about this co-worker’s habit today. She thinks it’s annoying, too. It was refreshing.

  9. Frances

    I’ve both been a student employee and supervised several student employees, and what you are doing sounds fine to me. The only exception for me would be that if your position is set up so that you have timesheets that need to be approved by someone else in the office, you should be making sure that person knows when you arrive and leave, just in case there are any questions later. For my students this isn’t normally an issue because we work at adjacent desks, but on days when I am not going to be in for the beginning and/or end of their shift, they usually peek into my coworker’s office to say hello or goodbye.

  10. Mike

    This is a situation where I feel the nod acknowledgement is perfect. If you make eye contact you nod but don’t have to say anything.

    Where I’m working now we have some core hours that everyone is expected to be there for but outside of that we choose when we arrive and leave. The nod works perfectly as it doesn’t disrupt anyone and gives the other person a chance to indicate if they desire a discussion or not.

  11. The IT Manager

    What Alison said. Please don’t make the rounds. My organization is on a single floor. I say hello to the people I pass in the hallway on my way into the office to the people in my immediate office (cubical farm with potentially 4 other people in room with me depending on the day of the week). I certainly don’t make the rounds of the whole building. You shouldn’t greet/say good bye to the other 7 people not in your immediate vincinty especially since you work such short hours compared to them. They’re very likely to be engrossed in work when you arrive and depart.

  12. yen

    That sounds right – I’d say hi/bye to anyone around me, anyone whose eye I caught, or who I ran into. It sounds a little odd to make the rounds just say bye, even in a generally collegial (sorry) office.

  13. Anonymous

    So nice to see someone is even considerate enough to think about this enough to write AAM! I’m more used to the rude coworkers who look you in the eye as you say “Good morning,” then DON’T REPLY … which I’ll never understand. So it’s heartening to read that I’m not the only non-rude person left! :)

  14. De Minimis

    I don’t really go out of my way to say hello, although I work in pretty close quarters with my department so I usually end up seeing people as they come in each morning [I am almost always the first one there] and end up saying hello then. I sometimes will make an exception when it comes to the people who supervise me, which I guess is more about “face time” but our department is so small that I don’t know if such a concept really exists.

    This whole thing reminds me of one of the Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes….”Don’t you say goodbye?”

  15. Farah :)

    I think you can try it this way: When you go in, if you see the person working just don’t disrupt them. But if they put their head up and look at you(specially in the eyes) then here you can totally say “hello” & smile. Easy! People don’t always have the time to say hello since they are busy at work. A from time to time hello is good, or maybe later in the day or the break you might have the opportunity to do that. That’s just what I do, this way I don’t bother anyone & no one bothers me. And Alison, you are right dear!

  16. Eric

    Weird. When I come in in the morning, I go around personally to each of my coworkers desks and tell them “Good morning, sunshine! It’s going to be a fantastic day!” When I leave for the evening, I do the same, only I change it to “Have a fantastic night and sleep well tonight! Tomorrow is going to be another great one! I’ll be thinking of you!”

    HR wants to see me tomorrow. Not sure what that could be about.

  17. HR Pufnstuf

    The receptionist always gets a good morning and good night when I come and go.
    In the office, I give a nod or sometime smile when eye contact made, if I get a greeting I’ll give it back. Evening, it’s a “good night” to the people I want to give notice I’m leaving.

  18. Gmac

    My colleagues will come in and regardless of if I’m in the middle of something they get shirty if I don’t say good morning! Yawn!

      1. HR Pufnstuf

        Found it!

        MEANING:
        adjective: Bad-tempered, irritable.

        ETYMOLOGY:
        From the expression “to get someone’s shirt out” to annoy or to lose one’s temper. Earliest documented use: 1846.
        This needs to be a US import.

        Thanks UK!

  19. jesicka309

    We have a big open office, and the greetings kind of vary. I use to be a hello/good morning person as I walked in, but my office is pretty hostile, and getting ignored every single morning hurt. Same with the goodbyes. I am actually walking past them, and it’s not like we all start at different times. We stare at our computer screens all day. The least they can do is say hi in the morning.
    I swear, there are days where I go home and the first conversation I have ALL DAY with anyone is with my partner over dinner. It makes for a really depressing workplace when people are soooo busy they can’t observe general courtesies. Sorry for ruining your Facebook time, coworkers!

    1. Anonymous

      Don’t take it personally. At least it sounds like your work isn’t dependent on them.
      That’s when it gets annoying.
      I have a situation where subs come in in the morning not having any idea on how we operate and the lead will not give them any information even though this person (sub) will be working with us for the day- let alone speak to them.

    2. Non-mouse

      I relate more to your feelings on this because I am somewhat more on the extrovert side than the introverted side. Extroverts tend to be energized from social interchange and we may even “need” this more on an emotional level. Since it is a workplace, we have to always remember that that’s its primary function in our lives, but boy the “vibe” can get chilly in there fast if there’s zero social nicety. Brrr! Fortunately, it really only takes a tiny little bit of social interchange for most extroverted types to feel like we’ve gotten our “fix” of human contact/kindness. It’s actually pretty amazing what these little greetings can do to warm things up in the cold open tundra, er, office. Even if there’s only about 2 minutes’ worth per day of casual chit-chat, it’s enough to make the work atmosphere tons more comfortable. But just as extroverts are charged up from social contact, introverts are drained by it (I know what that feels like too since I’m almost at the middle of the “I”/”E” scale), or at least by excessive amounts of it. Too much of it really can hinder their ability to work, so there should be a balance there: not too much chit-chat, but just enough to thaw the ice. I don’t think too many introverts or extroverts would complain about that.

    3. Veronica

      Your workplace sounds like heaven! I would love it if no one talked to me all day – my productivity would double and I wouldn’t feel so drained when I get home from work.

    4. Rana

      I would imagine that part of the problem is the open plan office itself. There’s no way to signal “I am too focused on work now to talk to anyone” or “I’m taking a brief internet break to recharge, don’t bother me” except through body language. I would bet that most of your co-workers would prefer to have offices with doors they could close as needed.

      This doesn’t fix the “problem” you’re describing, but maybe it will help you understand it?

  20. Waiting Patiently

    Use judgement. If you are working in the same vicinity as the person by all means speak. No need to seek people out.

  21. Non-mouse

    It’s true, and kind of fascinating, how so much of this can depend on just the geography of the workplace. I guess, in a nutshell, if you have to walk too far out of your way (definitely it’s too far if it’s on another floor) or it requires you to enter doorways (which may or may not be closed), the greeting can be seen as unnecessary. And it’s the “unnecessary” part which may annoy co-workers (if they’re busy or easily distracted) or come off as too try-hard. But on the other hand, if it really isn’t too far out of their way, it’s the “unnecessary” part that can make it such a nice gesture. There’s a guy I work with who always, always makes sure he says good morning to everyone and always says goodnight to everyone too and he has to walk a little bit out of his way to do it (like across a big open-plan office, not across a whole floor). Like, he’ll be headed out the door but still walk back to the innermost part of the room that’s furthest away from the door, and then walk all the way back out, just to make sure he hasn’t skipped anyone. I find it very nice and it definitely gives me positive associations with this person. All this could depend on the person in question, definitely, but with this guy, my thought is definitely: “he didn’t have to walk back in here just to say goodbye to me but he did because he thought it was important. That creates a warmer atmosphere and he is a polite, pleasant person”. It also helps that he doesn’t try to start a huge conversation, just gives the quick, low-key greeting, which still manages to come off very warm.

  22. OP here

    I just had a look at all the comments, and I’m glad that the general consensus is that I haven’t been rude. For someone kind of socially awkward to begin with, I’ve found picking up on office culture norms a little tricky. Reading AaM (both Alison’s replies and the comments) has been so helpful! Thanks everyone.

  23. Cassie

    If I’m passing someone as I’m walking in or out (i.e., our eyes meet), I will say hi or bye or something along those lines. I usually don’t say hi or bye as I’m passing cubicles though and I definitely do not make daily rounds. I’m not a big fan of daily rounds by my coworkers either.

    My general opinion is that people are free to greet others as they choose (e.g. rounds), but people are also free to ignore such greetings if they choose. To me, it’s different if you are actually looking at each other and the person doesn’t respond, vs saying hi/bye to a group of cubicles and only a few people respond.

    There is only one person who I greet each morning and it’s because I pass by her when I get my coffee – she usually looks up so I’ll say good morning to her.

  24. TheSnarkyB

    I appreciate all the consensus here and I’m pretty much on the same page, but I do feel like I have to note that there are significant cultural boundaries to this response. OP, I’m with you – I’ll give a shout out (at normal indoor-voice volume) to whomever is within earshot, but that’s it. But I’ve noticed pretty varying norms in different offices. Sometimes it’s generational, sometimes cultural, sometimes geographic, sometimes racial – I’m a woman of color and I currently work in an office with very senior/professional Black women and I’ve discovered that the norm is to say hello to all of them (very small office, <5).
    I've noticed similar things during stints in Minnesota, while working with older generations of women or Southerners, etc. – It may also be a gendered thing as I've never worked in a male-dominated field.
    I just wanted to throw my caveat in and perhaps you won't have to learn the hard way like I did. (I was perceived as rude or short when I first came, I think).

  25. JessB

    I know I’m late reading and commenting, but I’m just now catching up on posts, and I had to add my two cent worth!

    I have two co-workers who have made specific start and finish time arrangements to make sure they catch a certain train. These arrangements mean they start about 5 minutes early and leave 5 minutes early. One of them in particular makes a big performance about saying goodbye to the two or three of us left in the office, which drives me crazy. Although she’s finished, we’re usually all in the middle of one last job we’re trying to finish before we leave in our own time, and it’s such a distraction.

    I think words will have to be had!

    In other words, I totally agree with the OP’s decision to just say hello and goodbye to those people in the immediate vicinity.

  26. Jane

    I seem to have exactly the opposite opinion to many of the other commentators!

    I find it astonishingly rude when my co-workers arrive later than me, and sit down in our shared office without acknowledging I’m there. There is nothing in my (fairly senior) job that is so vital/complex that it outweighs the basic courtesy of saying “good morning” to the people who sit next to me.

    Also, why not say hello to someone when you pass them in a corridor? You’re both walking somewhere, so it’s not like you’re actively working on something.

    In my current workplace my colleagues often don’t acknowledge each other when they walk into the staff room – you can be having a coffee and someone else will walk in behind you, make a coffee in the kitchen and walk back out without saying “hello”. Perhaps other commentators would not want to interrupt someone’s break, but to me this is so discourteous, and it’s the first workplace (of around 10) that I’ve ever experienced this behaviour.

    1. Anonymous

      Maybe some people just aren’t at social as you and you should realize you are at work and stop taking things so personally. The world doesn’t revolve around you and people have their own lives/thoughts/issues going on in their own heads. Don’t be so needy!

  27. Heatherbrarian

    Where I work, the office manager’s desk is right next to the sign-in board. When I started, I didn’t say hi to her in the morning or goodbye at night if I came to sign in or out and she didn’t make eye contact. I figured it would drive me totally nuts if I got interrupted by 10-15 people every morning and afternoon (plus 5-10 more during the day as shifts change, since we have part-timers) just so they could all say hello and goodbye.

    But as I got going in the workplace, it felt like she didn’t really like me. When I tried to figure out how I could change that, one of the things I attempted was starting to say hi to her in the mornings even if her head was down. That tiny thing made a big difference. I guess that she thought I was rude for not interrupting her work to say hello/goodbye when I was near her space – whereas I thought I was being polite and respectful of her trying to get stuff done! So good for you, OP, for being sensitive to these things. As I found out, it can make a big difference in relationships with your coworkers.

  28. Vike

    To at the very least spend 1 second to say good morning to someone is important as a show of respect and acknowledging someones existence. If I am in the office after co-workers are there, I say hello or good morning to them. If I am there before them, then when they come in it is proper for them to say it just as a show of respect and common courtesy. 1 second out of a day could change the whole perception of an individuals attitude and personality.

  29. Keith

    I have an employee that in his previous job was a manager. He somehow thinks this gives him the right to constantly give my employees pep talks. One morning this week before he got to work we had already had two employees call in. One late and one asking to be off. Bad start to a busy friday morning. When employee arrived he began instructing two fellow employyes (1 that had just tried to get off and instructed hed better show up) and another employee the importance of greeting your subordinates. Two other employees were within hearing distance both of whom were managers but werent directly being spoken to. He said that studies show that managers who speak a greetings to their employees have better communication with their employees. This runs two ways in my opinion! Employees that are rude and talk back and smirk when your are approaching them about an issue and belittle authority make it difficult. Having said that said employee and one manager have personality clashes. To put it mildly said manager just doesnt think greeting this employee is going to make either of their days better or worse. Honestly if the manager (and calls himself a christian) is being a hypocrite when he cant approach said manager to ask questions concerning his job. Thus the owner of the business relieved the manager of having to deal with this employee directly because of his childish attitude. So why would the ex manager feel the need to address other employees that will make them feel like it was a waste if time for them to even have to respond or hear it. Just come to work do your damn job, stop complaining, leave the pep talks to the boss and quit preaching and not practicing what you preach!!

  30. Rina

    I find it annoying that I had to say good morning to each coworkers in the office..like 5 people by name because they are old and old school and tha’ts what they re used to. In the beginning I did but then I got tired and I’m a bit shy so i don’t like screaming at the top of my lungs. So I stopped and I’m all good. my desk is near the door.Rude or not I only say good morning to the important people that I work with. I will say hi if I see them face to face otherwise no.

  31. lo

    I listen to headphones or wear earplugs at work to concentrate….I work with medical claims which involves reading codes and millions of dollars. In the morning she greets, makes a comment about the weather and in the evening she degreets and says she will see me tomorrow (no sh$t). Even with myheadphones she still does this causing me a moment’s wondering if someone is talking to me, having to turn around, take my phones off, tell her goodnight, and that I will indeed see her tomorrow. I start having anxiety around the time know she is coming or going because I have to start listening for her in order to respond. It is just inane and at times extremely irritating. I dont feel the need to make a ceremony of leaving for 12 hours…I realize she is trying to be polite or something but she is having the oppsite effect.

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