my coworkers keep discussing private business in front of me as if I’m not there

A reader writes:

About five months ago, I started a new job that I’m so far mostly enjoying and seems to be going alright. I do, however, have a weird problem (or it seems weird to me) and I’m not sure how best to handle it.

We’re a small department in an open plan office and people frequently chat, either stopping at each other’s desks or, if they sit close by, just chatting across the tables. This is mostly fine, but at least a couple of times a week people will have what seem like they should be private conversations very openly where I can hear. The subjects range from being upset with another department or their manager to personal problems, problems the business is having, or changes that might be coming up but haven’t been announced yet. Almost everyone seems to be involved, including my boss who sits near me. He will also often have loud phone conversations at his desk and then explain the call to people around me (including the people who sit on either side of me).

I’ve overheard so much in the time I’ve been here (we recently lost a client, two people got fired, though I don’t know why, problems with product development, and so many interpersonal dramas!). Honestly, I’m really not trying to listen in or eavesdrop; all of these are things I’ve heard while sitting at my own desk, clearly in sight of the people who are talking.

I really don’t know how to respond to all this. Some of these conversations seem to be clearly private. But on a couple of occasions, I’ve assumed that since people were openly discussing things in front of me it was fine to join the conversation (one time it was literally the person sitting on my left talking to the person sitting on my right), only to be met with awkwardness and evasive answers when I’ve asked what’s happening. This has happened in front of my boss, so he’s clearly aware of the situation.

Is this normal? Am I supposed to just pretend I can’t hear all of this? Are they just forgetting that I’m there? On one hand, I will admit that some of it is interesting, but I really don’t need to know all of this, and it’s very frustrating to keep hearing half a story and not know the context or the details. I don’t want to seem like I’m butting into other people’s business, as I’d like to forge good relationships with my coworkers. But I’m also kind of hurt that everyone else seems to be openly having conversations that I’m not allowed to join. Am I over-thinking this? Will it get better once I stop being new?

I’ve already moved desks once, and that hasn’t helped, and I can’t wear headphones because I need to hear the phone, as well as plenty of work-related conversations that are meant for me.

Overall, I am pretty happy at the job and the pay and benefits are good, but I’d be grateful for any advice, because I have no idea what to do!

This is almost certainly the result of having an open office plan. People need to be able to have private conversations, but open offices sometimes make that so hard that eventually some people just give up and start having those conversations right out in the open … often while expecting people around them to pretend they’re in a soundproof chamber … and often without using any of our normal signals to convey “this is private” (like lowering their voices or pushing their chairs close to each other).

So yes, you should probably pretend you can’t hear any of it. It wasn’t unreasonable of you to try to join in, but now that you’ve been rebuffed a few times, the best course of action is to erect mental walls around those conversations and handle them the way you would if they were happening in an office next to you — where you might be able to overhear but would know that wasn’t an open invitation to join in.

That doesn’t mean your colleagues aren’t being a little rude. Talking back and forth when there’s another person sitting directly in between you and then being surprised when that person joins the conversation is … rather precious. And really, it sounds like your boss needs to do a better job of laying out operating norms for all of this.

That said, is your job by chance different from the jobs of the people around you? If you’re, say, the accounts payable person, and the people talking about drama with a client are client service people, it’s not that weird that they’d expect to be able to have work conversations amongst themselves without intending them for the whole group.

On the other hand, if you’re all doing basically the same work and these conversations aren’t highly specific to their individual projects, then it’s weirder. In that case, this might be about their familiarity with each other and your newness. They’ve worked with each other long enough to share something they heard about Client X or Policy Y, but they don’t know you well enough that they’d normally initiate that conversation with you — and so they feel awkward when you join in (which is rude of them, given that it’s an open office). Or they’ve already discussed the context on Topic X with each other previously and this is a continuation of that conversation, and they didn’t expect it to become a discussion with the wider group. Who knows.

It could also be that your office has adapted to the open plan by creating a culture where people not directly involved in a given conversation tune it out. And it could be that because you’re new, you’re not great yet at quickly determining if something is for you or not.

Or they could just be rude!

If they’re otherwise decent and reasonably friendly people, I’d give them the benefit of the doubt and just pretend you don’t hear this stuff. If they’re not decent and reasonably friendly people, then this will just be one symptom among many.

Either way, the open office set-up makes this kind of thing hazy and confusing.

{ 81 comments… read them below }

  1. juliebulie*

    If they give you an awkward look, can’t you point out, “hey, I’m right in between you, so I really can’t ignore you”?

    1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      When I worked in a large office, I would always tell new people on my team that if they’re speaking loud enough for me to hear them, they could expect I would add myself to the conversation if I felt the need. If 2 people were having a quiet conversation, I’d assume it was private and ignore it. It’s rude to expect people to ignore you if you’re loud, or talking across someone, even if you’re in an open office. But my approach is probably not the best idea for someone who is new, although something similar to what you suggested is fine.

    2. AthenaC*

      OP could certainly try it! My experience, though, is that people who are already rude enough to do this sort of thing take offense to logic such as this.

      So I wouldn’t expect the OP to get much traction by saying something like that.

      1. Jennifer Juniper*

        OP may be in a junior position or all their colleagues may be senior to them. So OP may be seen as overstepping their place.

  2. Legal Beagle*

    I wonder why Alison didn’t recommend bringing this up to the boss – of course in a pleasant, solution-oriented way. Along the lines of, “Because of the way the office is set up, people discuss stuff that seems personal or confidential around me. I’m not sure how to handle these situations or if there’s anything I should be doing differently.” That would put the ball in his court to realize this is happening and address it in some way. Sounds like an uncomfortable position for OP, and the coworkers are certainly being rude.

    1. The Open Office H8R*

      I agree. Is the no-headphone thing an assumption on your part, or have you been explicitly told by management that you can’t wear them? Before COVID-19 precautions led us to start working from home, I was in a similar boat, so I got some decent noise-canceling headphones. They really helped dampen my ability to hear the superfluous conversations, but they weren’t so isolating that I couldn’t hear my phone. And because I was in an open office setting, people could gesture to me or IM me if they needed my undivided attention.

    2. Emilia Bedelia*

      I don’t know, I think that phrasing almost answers its own question – “people are discussion personal/confidential information. What should I do?”… ignore them? What other answer would the boss possibly give?
      I think this is something that one has to get used to when working in an open environment. Similar to the subway- it is just accepted that there is no personal physical space, so you need to construct a “mental bubble”. It would be absolutely ridiculous to comment on a stranger’s conversation on the subway, so a similar principle should apply here- don’t participate in a conversation you are not explicitly part of. If you really need to jump in, you should acknowledge it and formally “enter” the conversation – “Sorry, couldn’t help but overhear – I’m working on the Llama Glue project, what was that about it getting cancelled?” Casual chatting about weekend plans or such would feel different, as that is usually pretty open and attracts people to join in, but a detailed conversation about a specific topic between a small group of people is not really open game in my mind.
      I had a coworker who would listen to my personal phone conversations and comment on them later (eg, them: “Congratulations on buying a house!” me: “What? When did you hear that?” them: “Oh, I heard you on the phone with the mortgage person”), which was deeply weird and did not at all improve our working relationship. I didn’t really mind my coworkers knowing about my mortgage, or I would have actually gone somewhere private… it’s just not nice to feel watched/listened to all the time. Open offices are not ideal for anyone – at least give your coworkers the illusion of privacy. Until OP gets the hang of when it’s ok to jump in and when it’s not, I’d err on the side of feigning total ignorance, because that seems to be the expectation of the team.

      1. Goliath Corp.*

        Yeah I don’t see what the manager would possibly do to change the situation, but it could be brought up in a regular 1:1 as part of a general conversation about how things are going. “I’m not used to this, do you have any advice?”

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes! I actually had started writing a paragraph initially about asking the manager for advice, but concluded what you did — that the answer is probably going to be “ignore it as best you can; it’s the nature of open offices.”

        1. Legal Beagle*

          Yeah, I hear that! I was thinking more that since OP is hearing work-related information that maybe she shouldn’t, it’s worth flagging to the boss. OP can frame it in a “what should I do?” way but really she’s making the boss aware that she is overhearing this information and he may need to do something about that. I agree it’s best to ignore the personal conversations, but work-related stuff is relevant to the OP and it’s not fair for her to have to pretend she isn’t hearing it. Particularly because she’s hearing incomplete information that is raising concerns for her, the boss should really shut this down.

      3. HoHumDrum*

        “It would be absolutely ridiculous to comment on a stranger’s conversation on the subway, so a similar principle should apply here- don’t participate in a conversation you are not explicitly part of.”

        Ha! Try to tell my Midwestern mom that- her main method of making friends is talk very loudly when waiting in lines then once someone makes eye contact it’s all over for that person. Used to find it humiliating as a teen, but just a few weeks ago I ended up having a very pleasant conversation with someone on the subway I made eye contact with, so I guess it rubbed off more than I thought.

        But to the point, these are all cultural norms that vary greatly. In my open office if you’re talking loudly people will assume it’s cool to jump in. Honestly it’s quite helpful- we all work in different but overlapping areas so there have been lots of time that I’m stuck on a project and then saved by a co-worker with pertinent info jumping in from across the room. Private conversations are had either in a different area or at least in a hushed tone. It sounds like LW’s office is not that way, but I don’t think the LW was doing something unreasonable by assuming a conversation had loudly right next to her was fair game. Now LW knows. I feel for LW though- I have ADHD and find tuning distractions out really hard without headphones. Maybe you can set up the phone so you can see when it rings, so you can wear headphones?

        1. User 483*

          Definitely a midwestern thing. And it carries into offices too. You don’t ask for details (since for some reason that seems nosy) but if you generally seem to understand what the conversation is about then you are free to jump right in and they will give you more details as they feel are needed.

          1. HoHumDrum*

            Funny enough, my office is actually in NYC. But we’re in museum education- I think a more collaborative environment by definition.

      4. Avasarala*

        Yes! This is very much a social skill required in crowded cities, open offices, and so on. If you were at a restaurant and there was a couple sitting next to you, would you jump into their conversation? In all the cities I’ve lived in, you would at least say, “Pardon me, I overheard you mention X” and as Emilia says, formally enter the conversation. You can’t just chime in with “I agree” or whatever like they were talking to you!

        As someone who was raised in so-called cold/standoffish cultures where you don’t talk to strangers, I freeze up and become very uncomfortable when people eavesdrop on my conversations and then assume they were invited to participate! It’s one thing to eavesdrop, but unless someone is insulting you or behaving dangerously, you shouldn’t interrupt and join other people’s private conversations–even if they’re happening in public.

      5. Okay, great!*

        I’ve never worked in an open office floor plan, and would be in the same situation as OP. I think it’s a bit different than the subway example, as these people are not strangers, they are co workers, and on her team. They are also talking loudly, across her, about work related things. If there was ever a conversation I would feel comfortable trying to jump in on to build relationships with my coworkers and feel part of the group, that would be it. It’s very strange to hear that this would be weird, and off putting to the other co workers. It seems this is a different social skill to learn that is specific to open offices.

        1. Mimi*

          During the time I was doing international service work, there was a period where I lived in a small rowhouse with two grad students and their professor. The house was NOT sound isolated AT ALL, and I’d lived there longer than them. The students and I immediately fell into a polite fiction that anything that happened outside the walls of the room you were in was inaudible (young folks used to shared housing? City living? Who knows). The professor… did not.

          If one of the students sat on the porch and vented to her boyfriend about how hard everything was, the other student and I decided that it was a necessary coping strategy for her and didn’t bring it up. The professor made it a HUGE deal and tried to address her complaints point-by-point. It did not go well. (I do have some sympathy for the professor there, in that she was the responsible boss-analog and felt like she needed to do something… but also let a woman have a private conversation with her boyfriend when she’s in a stressful situation.)

          I guess one takeaway of that story is that it’s a bad idea to move to a remote village in a foreign country for two months and live in the same apartment/house as your boss the whole time. But also if you’re in close proximity to other people who have nowhere else to go, you need to develop polite fictions that feel weird in other contexts.

    3. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      But the boss is one of the offenders so it probably won’t do much good. I’d just ignore it unless someone was speaking directly to me.

    4. Anon just in case*

      Yes, this. If it was just casual but personal conversation, I’d agree with Allison’s response, but it seems weird that OP can easily hear stuff like changes that haven’t been announced yet?

    1. Tongue Cluckin' Grammarian*

      The LW already covered that:
      “I’ve already moved desks once, and that hasn’t helped, and I can’t wear headphones because I need to hear the phone, as well as plenty of work-related conversations that are meant for me.”

      It’s not helpful to throw out one-word responses when you didn’t even finish reading.

  3. WFHwithmyDoggo*

    This is pretty much the set-up of my office. We all have fairly personal conversations out in the open (there’s no where else to do it, really) but there’s still a “line” drawn. We’ll complain about other departments, or our husbands/pets/kids, but there’s plenty we won’t talk about, if possible we’ll just text or go outside for a break to discuss anything “extra” personal. I think it’s the nature of the beast at my job because that’s just how it’s set up. I’ve been in other offices where the environment allows for more privacy and we didn’t have open conversation, but this is not that kind of office. There are other people in these cubicles when the conversations are taking place, and they occasionally comment but they are gladly welcomed into the conversation, since they are RIGHT THERE as we’re talking.

    1. SomebodyElse*

      I think this is pretty common, I mean there is going to be some personal discussions at work, and generally people don’t really care if they are overheard. I mean, yeah, if it’s something personal personal… you’re going to want to take that to a private place, but I’m not really getting personal personal from the OP’s letter.

      (I kind of think this is what Crabby was trying to get at… but that version was … well… crabby)

      1. A*

        This. I honestly didn’t interpret any of the examples as being ‘personal’ or something they shouldn’t be overhearing. Everything OP describes has been common in every work environment I’ve been in – more so in open floor plans, but still exists in other setups. I don’t think it’s rude – with the possible exception of the two on either side of OP talking to each other.

    1. Zona the Great*

      Good lord. I feel like the lack of work in the world has brought out the crabby pyjamas of the world.

      1. CJM*

        I sometimes call my German Sherphead, Sam, Sammy Pyjamies (because we say he has his pajamas on when we take off his collar at night). This username has kind of ruined that for me, and I didn’t even get to see the comment.

        1. HQetc*

          Nooo, that’s such a cute nickname! Don’t lose it to a crab! (Also, German Sherphead is my favorite typo. Calls to mind a very derpy shepherd dog.)

          1. CJM*

            I plan to get a picture of him “helping” me work from home, which we start after Friday, and sending it to Alison’s pet pictures post.

    2. Librarian of SHIELD*

      Wow. This is an incredibly rude response. We don’t treat letter writers like that here.

  4. Blueberry*

    I was recently discussing with a friend of mine the concept of developing a “forgettery” along with a memory. We were both raised in the same large crowded city (though we didn’t meet till elsewhere) and noted how sometimes one must choose not to see or not to react to things one sees, to preserve another person’s privacy in close quarters.

    I think an open plan office forces people into the kind of crowdedness where a forgettery and/or selective deafness can be useful sometimes. Also, taking care not to make people have to use one too often can also be part of politeness.

    1. AKchic*

      Feigned blindness / deafness to certain things works well in other areas of our lives (relatives and their bodily noises during the night, for example; or any noises one may hear or later *smell* in the bathroom; or perhaps what one does or doesn’t see in a locker room).

      This may be one of those times where unless LW’s name is called or she knows she is being addressed directly, she should feign deafness.

      1. SD*

        In my middle school classes if someone farted or similar, and someone guffawed, my eyeball to eyeball directive to the guffawer was, “Polite people don’t notice.” It didn’t solve the problem entirely, but it did tamp down future reactions. Maybe LW could just think, “Polite people don’t notice,” and move on. Alternately, if it’s just too personal, she could try, “I don’t think I should be hearing this,” and take the opportunity to visit the restroom or the copy machine or something. Maybe it would inspire the folks on either side of her to retire to the restroom or copy machine first.

    2. Joielle*

      Ha, I like this concept. I live in a residential neighborhood of a large-ish city where the houses are pretty close together, and when everyone has their windows open in the summer you have to just pretend you can’t hear things. Tuning things out does take some getting used to, but it comes naturally after a while!

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        I just think something like, “Ah, the urban experience” when that happens to me. Lets me acknowledge it so I don’t just get irritated by it.

  5. SomebodyElse*

    Is this really an open office thing or just an office thing.

    I’ve worked in open office setups, cube land, and only office setups. These types of conversations out in the open are pretty much universal to all types.

    1. Uranus Wars*

      I had the same thought! I have an office but my staff will yell loudly over their cube walls, often things I wish I could unhear but nothing overly egregious – and well, nothing physically over me as if I am not inbetween them. But they will yell cube to cube skipping the teammate in the middle cube

    2. MissDisplaced*

      I think it happens in ALL offices, but for some reason the open office makes this especially more noticeable and awkward. And sorry, but headphones don’t really help all that much, because they’re still right THERE.

      When we had cubicles, sure you sometimes overhead things from the ‘other side of the wall’ but you didn’t have to LOOK at the people on the other side of the wall. Open Offices SUCK!

  6. voyager1*

    I sit next to the conference room that executives use. However since the conference room does not have windows to help prevent harassment the people use it can’t close the door. It doesn’t get used too often but I hear everything and have just leaned to tune it out.

    I am a little surprised that LW thought it was okay to join a conversation. To me that would be a little obvious not to do. Going forward though LW needs to just pretend they don’t hear anything. Besides this arrangement might have some benefits when you actually hear something that is relevant to you… even tangibly.

    1. Librarian of SHIELD*

      In the kind of environment OP decsribes, it’s not always super obvious which conversations are private and which are public. Especially the conversation between the people sitting on either side of them. Most people don’t try to have a private conversation with a whole extra person sitting between them. That’s incredibly rude and it doesn’t surprise me that the OP was confused about whether or not they were included in the conversation.

      I’d recommend that the OP try to observe their coworkers more to see if there are any potential hidden signals people tend to give when they’re trying to be private in public.

      1. Washi*

        In the open offices I’ve been in, there are signals about what’s private and what’s not, but it definitely takes some patience and observation. Usually if two people are very close together and speaking in a quieter tone, they don’t want someone jumping in. Also if a few people are in the middle of an intense discussion, typically they’d prefer not to have someone uninvolved in whatever the situation is adding their two cents. It’s not that it’s private, it’s just that it’s annoying to get halfway through a discussion with a coworker and have someone else who didn’t hear the whole situation suddenly jump in with what they they think is the answer.

        BUT in every open office I’ve been in, it would be rude to talk over someone’s head like OP describes, and extra weird to be taken aback if they join the conversation. It makes me wonder if there are some other social dynamics going on that OP isn’t picking up on, like cliques/subgroups where you know that if Josie and Ruby are talking to each other, they never want to be interrupted, but Anne and Diana never mind.

    2. Koala dreams*

      Wow, I would have thought it was obvious to not have a conversation next to a coworker unless you were okay with them commenting. If it’s a phone call it’s another thing (unless you are on speakerphone). Different norms in different places, I guess.

      1. HoHumDrum*

        Yeah, like I work in an open office too but generally people go to a room/go outside when they’re doing something private, or at least start to speak in a hushed voice. If you’re speaking loudly and other people are around, it’s usually the sign that the chat is for anybody to join. In my office it’s not at all uncommon for for people to call out from across the room if they hear something they have input on. We’re a collaborative, social office, and we all do things that are different but overlapping, so honestly its genuinely helpful, sometimes you get a crucial assist from somebody a desk over that has info that pertains to what you’re working on. Things that are private are taken to a private area.

      2. chi type*

        Not even “next to” but “over the head of”. I understand expecting feigned deafness but that’s taking it a bit far.

    3. WellRed*

      Well since the folks who brought us open offices have sold managers on the concept of Collaboration! Communication!, one shouldn’t be surprised if someone chimes into a conversation. Especially if it’s going right through them. She should do it more, maybe they’ll get the hint. There’s no expectation or right of privacy here.

    4. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      If 2 people were speaking across her, then it’s rude of THEM to expect her to not join the conversation. Sorry but if it’s private, then don’t be loud about it or go somewhere else. These aren’t strangers on the street. They’re colleagues.

  7. Shani*

    At my last company one of the VPs who had an office behind my cube usually kept his door open for calls. Once he was on a conference call, on speaker, with my department’s senior leadership discussing layoffs for a team I had worked with. I inadvertently told one of them because she had been looking sullen for a few days. She said she had no idea what the status of her job was, they kept saying they’d let the team know when there is a decision. I ended up telling her the timeline I overheard on the call… Which is exactly when she was let go.

    Should I have ideally kept it to myself? Maybe. But I was frustrated this VP was so nonchalant and unprofessional. I overheard racist diatribes and nasty corporate infighting on those calls as well. He was not someone I worked with directly, just a senior VP with no reports and no one really managing him.

      1. MissDisplaced*

        I lean towards that. However, you have to be sure you can trust that person to keep the info to herself.
        I mean, it was a ‘heads up for her, but what if she had blabbed that to everyone and where she heard it? Be careful!

  8. CubicleEavesdropper*

    The thing I miss most about being at home is listening to my next cubicle neighbor! She has 2-3 hours of personal phone calls a day at a high enough volume that you’d be hard pressed not to hear her, and I’ve gotten to know basically all of her family and friends, their relationships, and all their drama. It’s obvious different since it’s totally not work related but I love coming home to give the latest Crucilda (not real name) update to my family.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Hello kindred spirit. I always take this kind of stuff for a chuckle and a side story with friends/family as well. But it has to be really just brazen like Crucilda. If it’s lowkey, I am lowkey. You amp it up, I’m all about that hype!

    2. GeneralK*

      I have a Crucilda too! The other day, I realized I had no idea what was going on with her mother, her cruise, her lunch, her workouts, her son’s homework, or anything else she spends 90% of her workday talking about. And I felt so, immensely happy! I’m all about the silver linings now :)

    3. Extroverted Bean Counter*

      Ha, same. My Crucilda didn’t do personal calls but she did have lots of personal life related conversations with her teammates (we all sat in the same half-wall cube bank, Crucilda was my “neighbor”) and I miss hearing about her life! It’s honestly a gift when the no-filter loud gabbers are also the people with fantastically entertaining personal lives.

  9. atgo*

    Ugh rough. I don’t know if you’d have the capital to suggest this, being so new, but it might be worth coming up with “open office norms” that the whole office can collaborate on. We did this at a previous job, where my complaint was people talking at long distances across the office. In the conversation and the norms that came out of it, I also learned that some people are really sensitive to food odors, some are very distracted by hearing just 1 side of a conversation, and other nuances. We made agreements about how to use the space (like any 1:1 conversation should move to a closer/quieter discussion if it’s more than a minute or two) and put them up on the wall where everyone could see.

    That said, the culture of the company was very democratic and collaborative (sometimes too much, tbh), so it wasn’t a big stretch to do something like that and have people buy in.

  10. Koala dreams*

    I don’t think it was a bad idea to join the conversation when people ignored you before, it’s rude to pretend your coworker doesn’t exist, especially those who wanted to talk to each other over your desk, but next time you need to be clearer, since the talkers obviously are too clueless to get the hint. Point out that you are there, ask them to move the conversation elsewhere or at least tell them to stop speaking across your desk.

    You can also check if it’s okay to have just one earbud with music, or if there’s some way to get the ringtone to your earphones or get a light based ringtone. In an open office there is always distracting noises, even if you get the most annoying people to stop chatting. People who need to talk to you can wave, call or send a message.

    To be honest, I’m not sure the no earphones rule is meaningful. If you get very good at disregarding the sounds around you, you might easily miss the phone ringing or somebody calling your name anyway.

    1. Goliath Corp.*

      That’s a good point. I work in a mostly-open office and sit right next to the lunch area. I’ve gotten so good at tuning things out that I often miss the phone ringing even without headphones… I pretty much only ever catch it because of the light.

  11. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    I’ve always been a ‘central hub’ so to speak, even when I have my own office. People still lurk outside of it and discuss things, they talk too loudly in general and sound carries etc.

    I also have had to learn to “listen” even when I’m not involved because I’ll be asked about something pertaining to it later sometimes, usually in a round about way. Nobody tells me Jim Smitty is calling for X project or even about X project directly. But I heard someone discussing X project or saw Jim Smitty walking around looking at “stuff”, etc. So when Jim’s assistance Darlene calls and starts asking questions, I know somewhat what’s going on, at least enough to not be utterly confused AF.

    So in reality, this has it’s perks! Be that fly on the wall…the informational fly. But yes, mind your own business until you’re waved on in or addressed directly. Every so often I hear someone chattering on and then hear “Oh Becky should know this.” and I’m able to say “Sure do, blah blah blah blah.” But otherwise, you learn when to put your 2c in and when to keep your 2c out. It’s hard, it’s not always natural but once you’re immersed in the land of chatter of all kinds, you learn to filter things out.

    So yeah, you ignore it. There’s really nothing else you can do, it’s an open office plan. The boss is involved within it. It’s one of those cultural things.

    1. Mel_05*

      Yes, this is such a good point!

      I worked at a company where I would never get direct info, but they would hold meetings in the same shared office space that I worked in. They were a bit farther away than the OP is talking about, so sometimes I would stop working a little, strain my ears, and take notes… because it was the only way I would know what the manager two levels above me would want.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Yes, one of my bosses had the office next to mine but we kept the doors between them open for the most part, unless it was actually personal stuff. I learned early on that he expected me to be somewhat listening too because of things he’d say and be somewhat verbal cues to tell me to “take notes”, without saying it. It’s a funky dynamic and yeah, I know it’s not for everyone since it’s that age old “We’re not mind readers.”

        I’m not a mind reader. I am good at reading people though and picking up with what they expect if they’re creatures of habit and comforts. Now if you’re a loose canon, not so much!

    2. Mallory Janis Ian*

      This is what I do, and I have a coworker who I wish would listen just a bit more before jumping in to conversations already in process. She is always welcome to join in, but it’s frustrating that she doesn’t listen for context and do a little more passive information gathering before jumping in and making people stop to explain things to her. Not implying that this is what OP does, just wishing that my coworker would take Becky Lynch’s tack sometimes . . .

  12. Mel_05*

    I’ve always pretended like I can’t hear people. Sometimes I can tune them out, sometimes I can’t, but if someone isn’t talking to me, I pretend not to hear. Think of it as being at a coffee shop. I can hear the strangers half a foot away sharing sordid details about their lives, but I’m not going to chime in.

    And unless the person was talking rather loud about a more general thing (ex. going around to everyone tell them about a new system or something), I’m going to pretend I couldn’t hear even when they ask, “Did you hear that?”
    Because they would rather repeat themselves than believe that I can hear their conversations two feet away.

    The most frustrating time is when a coworker is asking a question of several people, they can’t answer the question, but you know – but you still shouldn’t answer! That seems rude. It seems mean spirited – but people do -not- want to realize that you could hear them asking the whole office. Wait till they ask you or they are STILL going to be annoyed, even though you helped them.

  13. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    There’s a phenomenon that happens in elevators, subway trains, crowded parties, etc. where everyone tries to keep a certain amount of distance and aloofness, but once the crowding hits a certain point – or the people are familiar/friendly enough with each other – the acceptable separation collapses and people are able to handle being smashed together.

    I think the same kind of thing happens conversationally in situations like this. There might be a phase change after OP has been there a few more months (or whenever they are no longer the newest person in the office), and they’ll be included in this weird conversational dynamic too.

  14. Batgirl*

    This happens to me a lot because a) I’m quite discreet and b) I tend to blend into the background a lot.
    The discretion thing means I am constantly amazed at the type of thing people will discuss right in front of me. Other people have a different bar for that sort of thing.
    The blend-in thing: I think of myself as sociable but I do work very quietly and I can get really engrossed in my work. If I am working with similar personalities, they are aware of me. When I am with louder, chattier people they jump out of their skin when I finally talk.
    This is what I do:
    1) I listen to everything (knowledge is power) but I only contribute if it’s a harmless topic like TV or if I think people deserve to feel a bit awkward and indiscreet.
    2) I join in at the outset or not at all. Most people who get tempted to publicly overshare start out with harmless and discreet statements before encouraging each other to wade deeper. If I join in only when it gets interesting, it feels like going from 0-100mph all at once to them. Also, if I haven’t joined in at the beginning they have (unreasonably) assumed I’m engrossed in my work and not listening.
    I basically expect intervening to be a bit jarring to them, even if I think they should know how to avoid that.

  15. revueller*

    I read an article once that described open offices as necessitating a “fourth wall” mindset when a physical wall is no longer there, and it’s really true. Giving someone the illusion of privacy can make open offices less miserable, but it leads to really weird signaling issues. (See: the one letter where an employee took out the letter writer’s earbud to ask her a question).

    You may just be in an office where people (especially your boss) are used to having loud, open conversations that are ignored by others. Having that feigned privacy might be a courtesy to them, even if it feels like a nuisance right now.

    Plus, you’re new! People can be really, really bad about remembering to include new people in conversations and socialization. It hurts, and it’s hard, but I’m willing to bet this has nothing to do with you as a person and everything to do with Humans Are Strange Pack Creatures who seek comfort in familiar relationships. However, if you’re still feeling excluded from this office in 2–3 months, that might indicate, like Alison said, a rude office in general.

    Plus, those coworkers behaving like you’re the rude one when you join a conversation where they’re literally talking over your desk is odd. I’d personally speak up and ask them to take their chit-chat elsewhere if it’s a conversation that lasts longer than five minutes. No one needs to have to navigate that weirdness so close to their workspace.

  16. LetterWriter*

    Hiya, thank you for taking the time to answer my question. It’s actually really helpful to know that it’s a fairly common thing and to just ignore it.

    My last (and first) job was also an open plan office, but everyone followed the unspoken rules that anything you discussed at the desks was fair game. If you wanted to have a private conversation you would go make a cup of coffee or step into another room or something. So I think it really threw me that people don’t do that here! (actually, they do, but the bar for when they do seems much higher!)

    To be honest, I think Allison’s theory that it’s to do with how new I am makes sense. The next newest person has been there 3 years so I guess it’s easy to get into habits.

    The situation has temporarily resolved itself as we’re now all at home due to Covid 19. But when we go back I’ll try to just ignore it / pretend I can’t hear. It’s good to know it probably isn’t personal, and that other people have experienced it. It’s so hard not to over analyse everything when you’re new!

    1. revueller*

      Yeah, with this context, it definitely sounds like a case of culture shock! I’m completely unsurprised you were thrown by that, especially given your last job had an open office as well and very different norms!

      To give more unsolicited advice (because you mentioned you’re trying to get to know people) — if y’all have remote communication software, now’s a great time to make deliberate interactions with coworkers. I know with my company, we’ve always had new people invite senior people to coffee chat (senior people or the company would pay, of course). We’re still doing that but over Slack calls instead! Just framing it as “I haven’t gotten the chance to know you as well/Let’s catch up since we’re not going to see each other for X more weeks!” might be helpful.

      Best of luck, OP!

    2. CircleBack*

      Yes I think part of their surprise is not being used to you jumping in because you just weren’t there before!
      One trick I use is to “dip my toes” into the conversation first – so for personal conversation happening right next to me, I might laugh, say “oh wow,” or hum in response to something as a reminder that I can hear them. And that gives people an opening to go “oh right, we should talk about this quietly” or “CircleBack, what do you think?” It feels less disruptive than jumping in to say something straight off.

  17. My coworker made me sign a cast on her crotch*

    I really struggled with that when I first started at my job. People had conversations and because they were happening right next to me or around me I thought I was welcome to share. Now I MMOB.

  18. Formerly Ella Vader*

    I think it’s useful to cultivate a blank face – listening for your “hello Siri” code that they want you in the conversation, but otherwise not paying attention. The expectation is probably that you don’t get into conversations until invited into them. It’s not like a social event where it’s rude to not include everyone who wants to be in the conversation. They don’t mind you knowing the things and they trust you not to misuse the information.

    Now if you hear them talking about something where you know it would help them to have the information you have, like they are planning to meet with Dwight this afternoon but you heard Dwight saying he was heading straight from lunch to his dentist, you could either try to catch someone’s eye, and kind of tentatively or apologetically say something like “Excuse me, if you were looking for Dwight, he won’t be back until tomorrow morning” (Once you’ve got a sense that you’re generally welcome to be listening to conversations like this, you can ease up on the tentative and apologetic, but as a new person in the office, and especially if any of the people are senior to you in other ways, start by assuming you shouldn’t be in the conversations but you are breaking that norm to help them.)

    Also, if you don’t think it’s urgent, or if you feel less certain they would want to be interrupted, you could wait until some other time and bring it up then. This is also a good idea when your information contradicts something they are saying. “When you were talking to Michael, he mentioned that there would be a blood drive all next week. I’m not sure that’s right, because I saw a notice that it would be the week after next …”

    Having experienced both, I can say that I prefer the polite fiction version of hearing things that aren’t my business and being trusted not to jump into the conversation, to having people whisper or close doors to make sure I don’t hear.

    1. Mami21*

      So… pretend not to listen, but also listen just in case they need your helpful input, therefore breaking the ‘fourth wall’, and then go back to pretending not to listen when all parties now know for sure you are listening?

      Sounds exhausting.

  19. Colorado*

    I was in an open office plan and it really just came to the point where we abided by the pretend you’re not listening clause. It was the only way to have any conversation considering most times the conference rooms were booked.

  20. Sleepless*

    I work in what I guess you would call an open office plan. I work in health care and my job by nature is in a large open area where we only sit down to write charts. I have a coworker whom I really like, but her inability to stay out of a conversation drives me up a wall! Any time anybody is talking about anything, she will turn all the way around in her chair and butt in with her opinions, helpful comments, or whatever. I’m relatively new here so a little of what she’s saying is important for me to hear; on the other hand I have far more experience in the field in general. So…argh.

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