my manager and her boss are always whispering and it’s driving me batty

A reader writes:

I work on a small team in a large company. The company isn’t doing so great – we’re downsizing and trying to invest in digital without spending any extra money. There is lots of talk about “new directions” and “changing strategies” at a level way above me. I also work in an open concept office, with the exception of my departmental supervisor, who has an office. There are 4 full-time staff in our department, including my supervisor, and we usually have 1 or 2 short-term contact employees around. There is one manager under my director who I don’t directly report to in our space. The other person and me are on the same level. We all work on the same projects.

In short: my boss and the manager whisper ALL THE TIME. I can half-hear it, it’s usually about something our department is working on. Work stuff, not gossip. I completely understand my boss and the manager need to have confidential conversations I should not be privy to. But whispering – and having prolonged conversations at a whisper level – several times as day when I sit 10 feet from the manager is driving me batty. Especially with the already not-great work environment due to lay-offs and restructuring and new strategies taking place. I don’t need to know what they are saying. I want them to have their confidential, private conversations away from my desk, especially when it’s clear I am not supposed to hear them.

In short, can I ask them to stop doing this? And if that’s not okay, what can I do?

Well, you can certainly point out that even though they’re whispering, they can still be heard — and that the whispering itself is unnerving and more distracting than a conversation in a regular voice might be.

I’d say something like this: “Jane, I wanted to mention something kind of awkward to you. I know that you and Miranda will sometimes whisper when you talk, I imagine because something is confidential or you’re just trying to not distract other people. I didn’t know if you realized that we can often hear it though! And because it’s whispering rather than normal tones, it can honestly be pretty nerve-wracking. Especially with everything that’s going on right now, it can be hard not to think, ‘That might be my job that they’re whispering about right now.’ I know this might sound silly, but I also figured you didn’t realize it was audible, and I wanted to give you a heads-up!”

Of course, this assumes that you have a reasonably good relationship with your manager. If you don’t, you could still say something similar to this, but I might couch it more as “hey, I didn’t know if you intended for those conversations to be confidential so wanted to let you know that they can be heard.”

{ 81 comments… read them below }

  1. Joey*

    To me this is similar to hearing people laugh and assuming they’re making fun of you. Or hearing people speak another language and assuming they’re talking about you. In other words this has more to do with your own insecurities than anything they’re doing wrong.

    In fact, isn’t it a good thing your managers are whispering and not loudly interrupting you or inappropriately exposing you to management stuff that’s not your business?

    1. CrazyCatLady*

      I have no problem with people speaking other languages or laughing but whispering is so obnoxious sounding – any insecurities aside. I find it distracting. And in this situation, it looks like they could be potentially exposing the OP to management stuff that’s not her business, since they’re doing it in close enough proximity to the OP.

      1. Joey*

        Why is it obnoxious? It sounds as though they’re trying to be sensitive to the folks around them.

        1. HeyNonnyNonny*

          I always feel like whispering is worse than normal conversations because you only hear parts of it, and your brain automatically starts to fill in the gaps– taking more of your attention.

        2. CrazyCatLady*

          I think it’s the type of sound (like someone mentioned below, the hissing-like sounds). It may just be me, because I’m sensitive to and annoyed by many sounds. (I have two people at work who talk in baby voices to one another, which is actually far more annoying than when I worked with two people who whispered to one another all day long).

          1. KJR*

            I would rather listen to 8 hours of whispering over 5 minutes of baby talk! There’s a lady here who does it, and it drives me batty!

        3. Melly*

          I HATE whispering with a burning passion. The sound of it alone is like nails on a chalkboard to me, I could really care less about the content. If this was happening at work all the time I’d be very annoyed.

          1. Ruth*

            I am exactly like this, it’s the first thing I need to explain to new housemates and it has really distracted me in exams as well, at work would be terrible…

          2. Cactus*

            Oy, yeah. My mom and my sister used to have little whisper-conversations when we would go on vacations where my sister and I would share a bedroom. They’d have these conversations when my mom thought I was asleep. Thing is, though: if I was truly asleep, normal quiet-talking wouldn’t’ve changed that. And when I wasn’t asleep, I could hear whispering as easily as I could talking (especially considering the fact that the rooms would be fairly small)…it was just infinitely more annoying.

        4. This is someone*

          Whispering is really, really hard for me to tune out, personally. People speaking another language is hard, but not as hard as whispering. Laughter or the like wouldn’t bother me at all, unless they were pointing at me while they did it or something egregious.

          I’m not saying a normal-volume conversation is helpful here either: if it’s something the OP shouldn’t know, they’d now be hearing all of it. (They might be able to better ignore it, if they’re like me – but whether they would or not, management cannot and should not bet on their ignoring it.)

          Then, too, at such close proximity as here, the OP is probably still hearing parts of what is whispered, which means the whispering isn’t keeping it confidential. (And if, like me, the OP cannot tune it out, the whispering is actually causing them to notice the maximum possible whether they want to or not.)

          Management should take confidential conversations to somewhere with a door that closes, if at all possible.

          If they don’t, and headphones are permitted in the office, I’d advise OP to get a set and use them.

        5. Miss Betty*

          Whispering is more distracting that just talking in a quiet or even normal, “indoor” voice. Do you remember that old perfume commercial – “If you want to capture someone’s attention, whisper”? So true! Whispering seems to carrying further than a normal voice, plus there’s all that hissing. Ack! Very, very distracting. If they’re that concerned about being sensitive to people around them, they could go to a private area to talk, particularly if it’s about things they may not want employees to hear.

        6. esra*

          Whispering is generally acknowledged to make people feel awkward. People feel weird that they’re hearing even snippets of a conversation that is clearly intended to be private. If you need to have a talk you don’t want people to hear, you’re better off taking it to a private space.

        7. KS*

          Then shouldn’t they go to the office the manager’s boss has? It’s hella distracting. Open offices are generally the worst, though.

    2. Tracy Flick*

      Or maybe they can go to a separate meeting room or hallway? I have dealt with the same at work and it is pretty distracting. One time someone WAS being fired and the only person not informed was me. So all day I wonder. It wasn’t me, it was a remote worker, BUT STILL.

  2. Katie the Fed*

    Oh yeah whispering is the worst. It’s the volume that makes your ears perk up and try to pay attention. So obnoxious.

    1. Kelly L.*

      And all thossssssssssssssssse hisssssssing sssssssssssssssibilant consssssssssonantssssssssss. Gah! Even if I knew they were talking about fantasy baseball or something else work-neutral, it would be annoying. Like whistling all day or something.

      1. Apostrophina*

        Oh, my goodness, yes: I hate that sound so much. I can concentrate through other people talking, loud music, and to some extent ringing phones, but whispering just devolves for me into a series of S and P sounds that drives me viscerally nuts.

    2. xxj*

      Yes ughhh, it’s just like how students in my uni’s library whisper-discuss to each other all the damn time. It sounds far more irritating than just talking normally, and I can’t pinpoint why!

      1. Kelly L.*

        No, but I’d rather hear regular voices. I think there may actually be some science behind this–I know there is behind why overheard cell phone conversations are more annoying than regular conversations.

        1. Cath in Canada*

          Yes, it’s much harder to switch off the “fill in the missing gaps! It’s like a puzzle!” part of the brain than the “listen to a whole conversation” part.

      2. HigherEd Admin*

        Definitely not. It’s easier to tune out a regular conversation than it is to tune out drips and drabs of a whispered conversation. Some of it is volume-related, some of it is because you only pick up part of the conversation so your brain is busy trying to discern the rest of it instead of just tuning it out. Regular conversation can be like white noise for me; whispering doesn’t have that effect.

        1. Cb*

          This probably explains why I can happily work in a cafe but people whispering when I’m working in the library drives me to distraction.

      3. Vinegar*

        I would be much happier with normal talking and laughing than whispering. It is *extremely* difficult to block out.

      4. Katie the Fed*

        No. But whispering is a weird volume and sound that just catches your attention more than other noises.

      5. MaryMary*

        There is something sonically that bothers me about whispering. The psssst psssst pssst noise. I am pretty good at blocking out other noises, and I actually prefer background noise to total silence. Whispering is like a leaky faucet, it’s a little noise you just can’t ignore.

        1. Windchime*

          I so agree. I used to have a cube neighbor who would whisper and giggle constantly. She is gone now, and another womanwho speaks in a soft, quiet, low voice moved into her cube. The constant whispering was MUCH more distracting than the woman who just quietly conducts her business in a professional tone.

  3. JM in England*

    If the manager and boss want to discuss confidential matters, why don’t they simply find somewhere private. The department supervisor’s office that the OP mentions for example………….

  4. Henrietta Gondorf*

    Nothing gets my shoulders up around my ears like open office plans. Lo and behold, privacy and confidential conversations actually need to exist in the office!

    I’m deeply sympathetic, OP. I hope the conversation is a constructive one!

    1. Olive Hornby*

      +1 to open office plans being the true villain here

      And yes, my sympathies to the OP! This would drive me batty.

      1. emb*

        I am the OP! Thanks for your sympathies! I will say this: I work super closely with the other minion and it’s honestly super nice to turn to her and be like “yo, is X done yet?” or “Hey, I’m stuck on this, what do you think?” (However, then my boss and manager often hear and inset themselves even when we haven’t asked them for input yet. But that’s another story.) But to have all different levels in the same space is…frustrating.

    2. HAnon*

      Yep. We have an open office plan and have to have “secret meetings” all the time if we want to talk without being heard. You can always tell if something’s up by whether or not someone closes the door or crouches in the break room…

  5. brownblack*

    I can’t help imagining an office where everyone is named Jane.

    Dear Jane,
    I was talking to Jane the other day and she wants to check on the status of the project you’re working on with Jane. Jane really needs to give Jane the prospectus by next week, or else Jane won’t be able to tell Jane in time for the meeting with Jane!


    1. Arjay*

      Ha, we actually have something pretty close to this, but it’s with Lisas and Michelles.

    2. Anonymosity*

      I had a job where we had at one point two Marks, four Daves, two Dales, and three Steves. Later we had three Carls. It was just weird.

    3. MaryMary*

      I once worked with so many Jennifers that we started calling them by their last names.

      1. 2horseygirls*

        +1 for being a Jennifer! :)

        +1 for having a job where five years after you started, you’re still introduced as “Jane Smith, the new Diana Jones*”

        * = person who had your job previously — like half a decade ago previously! Let it go! ;)

        1. MaryMary*

          Old Job used to have this weird thing where they’d use a person’s name for a position or level of expertise. “Oh, that’s a Jane question” or “Yeah, you need to ask a Joe about that.” Sometimes they’d refer you to a person who no longer worked there, which was confusing.

      2. Jennifer*

        I consider myself lucky that I run into far less Jennifers at work than I did during school. I briefly worked with one and right now we have a Jenny..

        I did go through a hiring cycle once where I hoped a Jennifer applying wouldn’t get it because we would have had two Jennifers in the exact same group and that would have screwed with everybody.

  6. simonthegrey*

    There’s a line between murmuring/low voice conversations and actual whispering; whispering sounds so much more…hissy? and I agree, it can be irritating. I don’t have the same misophonic response that others do, but it can get annoying over time.

  7. Laurel Gray*

    Growing up, I was taught that whispering was rude and that even if you were not talking about anyone in a negative light, it would look like you were since you couldn’t just say what you were whispering at a normal voice level. The problem with whispering in a workplace where there are so many other issues at play, a main one being “reorganization”, it looks VERY unprofessional and quite suspect when a manager and supervisor are whispering. Sure, the OP says it is work related and it may specifically be task related vs people related. The OP knows this because she is 10 feet away. But what about Cletus who sits on the other side of this open plan? How do you think he would feel?

    1. emb*

      I am the OP and this is actually why it bugs me SO MUCH. It feels very disrespectful. “Our conversation is too important for you to hear, but your work environment is not so important that we will have the conversation elsewhere.”

      I can’t hear 100% of the conversations, it’s like 50%. (I try really hard to not listen.) It’s a mix of task-related, people-related and speculation/information download about new strategies/management stuff that isn’t ready to be disseminated to the minions. So I know change is COMING, but I don’t know when. Or what. I think I’d rather not know at all. Whereas Cletus obviously knows SOMETHING is up, but not what. It sucks for everyone, except the people who don’t want to book a room to have these conversations.

      1. Laurel Gray*

        OP, I think your feelings are justified. I am not an insecure person and I think whispering is rude most of the time. I think the two of them are using poor judgment communicating in this kind away. I too am in the hate open floor plans camp partially for the issue you are dealing with. Good luck and keep us posted!

      2. MaryMary*

        I don’t know if it’s the case in your office, but it might not be practical for your managers to book a room for these conversations. Maybe they need need materials that are at their desks. Maybe all the common rooms are booked. Maybe it’s obvious to you that a big change is coming, but if your managers kept having unplanned, urgent conversations in meeting rooms, the entire floor would figure out something is up.

        From a manager’s perspective, it is really awkward to try to have confidential conversations in an open office. It’s awkward to whisper or speak quietly, it’s awkward to run back and forth to a meeting room (or run around trying to find a meeting room) and it’s awkward to try to keep something confidential when most of your team has figured out that something is going on. Middle managers generally don’t get to choose the office layout, and senior management tends to forget that they’re the only ones who have private office space.

        1. emb*

          Thanks for this perspective Mary. I honestly don’t know why they don’t have the conversations in the boss’s office, but I guess if the manager was going in there constantly, that could be a signal as much as whispering is.

          1. MaryMary*

            I missed that the Boss in this situation has an office. She may be oblivious, and your manager may be stuck. I was working on project for our CEO, and he kept calling me at my desk and asking questions that I could not answer on a phone in an open cube (like about coworkers’ performance, or who I thought would be good in a leadership role, or compensation). Every time I’d say that it was a conversation we needed to have face-to-face, or when meeting in his office, he’d be surprised. Every time.

      3. rotating cylinders and the possibility of global causality violation*

        Just me, but – I have serious problems with the notion that I am not supposed to listen to (or see) something that is happening within the limits of my hearing or vision. OP, don’t get me wrong – if you want to try to not pay attention, that’s your right. But I feel strongly that if someone wants privacy, it’s on them to find it.

        (This probably stems from an incident in college, when a not particularly close friend was visiting me at my apartment and began to get intimate with another not particularly close friend, and NPC friend 1 asked “Can we have some privacy?” Which annoyed me, so I said “No, go right ahead, I like to watch”. They left).

        1. Clever Name*

          Srsly? They were visiting your place and then expected you to leave when they started getting it on? I’m doing to assume they were both no older than 20, which would be their only excuse.

      4. ditto*

        I am in the same boat as you: small team (3), company in a lurch, and our dept. specifically is having some struggles.

        The only real difference for me is that it’s my manager and my peer. They have whisper-level conversations several times a day, right beside my desk. Once and a while I can even hear my name, and no one ever comes to talk to me afterwards or bring me in to the loop.

        For all I know, they ARE talking about fantasy baseball, but how can you be so oblivious that the only conclusion I can draw (especially since no one else even sits on our floor that could overhear the convo), is that it’s about me. Plus, my manager does the whisper thing with me, too, when she is talking about my peer… this just happens way less often then the two of them.

        I just can’t even focus on anything else when the two of them start on the whispering. It’s a constant source of anxiety around here (and I don’t think I’m just being insecure [though that may be a teeny part of this and I’ll own it]).

    2. Hannah*

      I agree with this. I consider whispering in an office environment to be rude. My rule of thumb is that if you feel you need to whisper what you are about to say, you probably shouldn’t be saying it at all.

      But I know not everyone thinks this or has even heard of this concept. Other than passively aggressively bringing it up in conversation, I am not sure how you could introduce this concept to someone who is really oblivious to it. I would be concerned that it could come across as petty.

  8. Ultraviolet*

    Your best bet is, as Alison says, telling your manager that you can actually hear much of the substance of these whispered conversations. Since they seem to need to have the conversations really often, I doubt they’d be able to stop just because it bothers you (even if they’re sympathetic about that), so I wouldn’t hint that that’s your preferred outcome. But you could ask about wearing headphones at your workspace.

    1. emb*

      OP here! This is true, which is partly why I am reluctant to broach it. They obviously need to talk a lot, which I get. I don’t want to come across as not flexible. I try to wear headphones, I should probably just turn the volume up higher (in addition to respectfully letting them know I can hear more than they think, but not enough to know not to worry/concern myself.)


      1. Me*

        Last time I wore earphones another 3 ppl were ‘restructured’ out. So, if I were you, I’d be listening for the restructuring info. If they really didn’t want you to know they’d talk somewhere else, or email.

        Our 2 bosses are always whispering in one of their offices. With the door open. :headdesk:

    2. Snork Maiden*

      I told a coworker who whispered loudly due to sound tricks I could hear them clearly, even from far away. Her answer was to continue whispering things like “Oh, Snork can hear you from here, so don’t say anthing” to other people. I am not sure whether to confront her again or just ignore it. It’s not serious enough to involve the manager yet, I don’t think, and the management here is…let’s say the hierarchy is very lateral.

      1. Ultraviolet*

        That’s an odd response! For what it’s worth, I’m sure this comes across as really weird to everyone she whispers it to…

  9. Malissa*

    To me whispering implies that you are having a conversation you don’t want people around you to hear. The best way to accomplish that is not whispering, but moving the conversation to another location.
    There is something about whispering that draws attention. It’s hard to ignore. Talking in regular voices is much easier to ignore.

  10. Snarkus Aurelius*

    This must be the gajillionth reason for why open office layouts are terrible.

    1. fposte*

      Right. This is a design-created problem. And now it’s turned into an interpersonal problem because of bad design.

  11. MaryMary*

    This is also a reason why open plan offices and cubicle farms should have white noise. It does so much to dampen all the little noises humans make. I wish for white noise so often it’s become a running joke at my office.

  12. Stargazer*

    A woman at my work does this (to me, and near me). It’s highly irritating because a) it’s rude and reeks of gossipy playground whispering and b) much of the time the person she’s whispering to can’t even hear her!

  13. Jennifer*

    I am now in an office where a lot of whispering occurs. I found it annoying, but now I understand why: there’s no privacy, everyone is listening in on/spying on everyone else and then reporting on them, and all this drama is going on. You kinda HAVE to do it.

    That said, I used to have a coworker who would start whispering to someone else RIGHT in front of your face. I thought I was a buddy of hers (I suppose I was, all things considered) and when we and another coworker were in a conversation, she suddenly starts whispering to the other one right in front of me. WTF? I whispered back, “Well, I guess I’ll go then” and walked out. Grrrr.

  14. Chingona*

    The odd thing about whisperers (or, ugh, dueling sets of whisperers) is that speaking clearly and at length with that level of sibilance is really hard work. It’s so much easier and less grating to your intended (and unintended) audience to simply lower one’s voice. I don’t think they do it on purpose, but I’m always surprised by adults who haven’t learned that just a softer tone works wonders in communicating things well, and quietly.

  15. Ruffingit*

    I used to work in a place where a lot of whispering conversations went on. The manager/owner had a lot of issues and many good people chose to leave that place. The whispering is annoying, but when I was experiencing it, I thought about how much I cared about the job anyway. Would I care if I got laid off? Not really, the job was crappy anyway. So my solution was to look around and see what was available. I eventually did get laid off, was out of work for a few months, weathered that financially and got another job. I think in the case of OP, I’d be more concerned about what I already know about the company and its precarious finances than about the whispering. Start looking now so when the ship sinks, you’ll be watching from shore.

  16. "Find yourself a cup; the teapot is behind you. Now tell me about hundreds of things."*

    It is true of course that you are never going to get complete silence in an office but whispering is different. It means that whatever it is, they don’t want you to hear. Talking in low voices is different – it usually just means that people are trying to be considerate and not disturb the work in the office. Whatever the subject matter is doesn’t matter in a way; it goes further than not wanting to disturb you because it is a conversation they want to keep from you. So if it is that important go for a coffee, or to a meeting room, breakout area or whatever the private spaces in your organization are.

    I was taught as a child that it was rude to whisper in front of people (unless it was part of a game or something) so I guess it just grates. It is worse in an office when the whispered conversation in the office is happening just inches away from you.

  17. JustMe*

    I have experienced this. It was between my manager and her ‘buddy’. Her buddy was a member of the team and yes, my manager actually referred to my co-worker as her buddy. Manager sat adjacent to my cube and coworker sat in the first cube on my row (I was in cube 3). They would both go into each other’s cubes and whisper. I heard everything because the cube walls were so thin and the sound carried throughout. They talked about me, other team members, how they’re going to structure the team, who should work on what….etc. Pretty disgusting and unprofessional! My coworker was a team contributor so the manager and she had no business behaving that way. It drove me crazy hearing all the inappropriate talk. I couldn’t understand why they just couldn’t call each other after work, talk at lunch, or go into one of the many small private rooms that were available. If you whisper, I listen even more.

  18. Taylor*

    My former manager and I worked in a small room, just the two of us. One of her old friends came into the company and would often come in to our small room, lean over her desk, and whisper violently with her. There would be a lot of giggling as well, suggesting gossip rather than work conversations (there was also an available conference room for private conversations). I finally had it with them, so one day I told them, “I can’t hear you two today, could you speak up please?” Point was taken.

  19. moodygirl86*

    Ah, the bloody office whisperers. Like others have said, I was brought up not to do this because it’s rude so it used to piss me off when I had managers who did exactly that, thus not practising the professionalism they were always preaching to us. And these were gossipy people, so you never knew if they were plotting against you. It sounds paranoid, but that’s how it felt. Then one of them had the cheek to moan at me for bringing in earplugs.

    OP, no real advice other than what others have suggested, but please accept my commiserations. Rude and annoying to the max.

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