how do I get my chatty coworkers to stop saying wildly inappropriate things?

A reader writes:

After several years working in a position I absolutely loathed, and with the help of your excellent advice on AAM, I have finally switched careers! I began working in a new field at a relatively well-known company in December, doing work that is actually interesting to me and working with a great team.

As a lower-level employee, I share a cubicle area with a couple of other lower-level employees in my department — we can call them Paula and Maureen — who have both been here for 1-2 years. I am in my late 20s, and they are in their early 20s. I believe this is their first job out of college and much of my company skews young, so they are still learning about professional norms.

They talk during work hours — A LOT — and it’s pretty irritating and distracting. They seem pretty unclear about what is and isn’t appropriate to talk about at work, and so I’m forced to listen to a ton of stuff I really don’t want to hear. There are employees from another department seated near us on the other side of a partition who presumably can hear them, too. (They speak at a normal volume.)

In the two months that I’ve known them, the topics of conversation I’ve overheard have included: their relationship problems; their parents’ relationship problems; diarrhea; their pets’ diarrhea; period blood; sexual assault; and touchy political issues, discussed with zero nuance. I know every medication Maureen is on and the conversations about money she has with her boyfriend. Paula has openly talked about sex and orgasms. They say the word “f***” constantly in an office where people only seem to use that language sparingly.

The two recently agreed that “all organized religion is bad.” (What if someone religious sits nearby?!) Maureen also laughed when she heard about an unvaccinated person being hospitalized, saying she hoped they enjoyed “deep-throating a ventilator.” Nearly every day they say something that I’m pretty sure technically counts as sexual harassment or is otherwise creating a hostile workplace — if not for me, then for others. I’m definitely not a prude, but we’re at work!

My job requires a lot of concentration, so I usually pop in my headphones to drown them out. Unfortunately, I still overhear a lot of disturbing things. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve adjusted my WFH days (my work is on a hybrid schedule, and I’m expected in the office three days a week) so that I’ve minimized the days we’re in the office together. I’ve tried jokingly telling them to knock it off — e.g., “guys, it’s not even 10 am and you’re already talking about [insert wildly inappropriate topic here]?” — but they don’t seem to get that their conversations might make people near them uncomfortable.

I am nice to them and try to engage in light conversation with them a couple times a day (…until they start talking about something I’m not comfortable discussing at work). But they seem to think of me as a curmudgeon. They have noticed that I put my headphones in a lot and make jokes about it. Recently a mid-level manager was visiting our desk cluster when Paula jokingly said “[my name] thinks we’re annoying, she said she likes to come in on days we’re not here.” I did say that it’s nice to be in the office on a quiet day because it’s easier to concentrate when there aren’t as many people around; I never said it was because I thought they specifically were annoying. Paula was just teasing, but I felt like I was kind of being thrown under the bus!

I don’t want to blow things out of proportion, but their conversations have been incredibly grating and distracting, and I’m a captive audience. Should I just keep my head down and my headphones in to avoid escalation, or should I try saying something to them?

Say something! You have the right to work without hearing about diarrhea and orgasms all day.

Frankly, it’s in Paula and Maureen’s best interests to have a peer point that out to them before a manager has to do it. That doesn’t mean they’ll listen to it coming from you, but you definitely have the standing to speak up and give it a shot … and if it doesn’t work, you have the standing to escalate it to someone they’ll need to listen to.

So, the next time it’s happening, try saying, “Y’all, please stop with the work-inappropriate topics. I don’t know if you realize how easy it is to hear you, but sex, toilet stuff, slamming religion — it’s not appropriate for work, and a lot of it would be a big deal if HR ever heard it.”

Based on their behavior so far, there’s a pretty good chance they’re going to see you as a stick-in-the-mud and make a big, annoying deal out of not being able to talk freely around you. If they do that but they still mostly stop the inappropriate conversations, I’d consider that an acceptable outcome. (To a point, at least. If they start being jerks toward you or unresponsive on work stuff, at that point you’d need to talk to your boss. But if it’s just eye-rolling and some annoying comments about your delicate ears, so be it.)

Or they might rein it in but not fully. If that happens, you should feel free to object in the moment — “Hey, this is more graphic than I want to hear” … “Save it for the bar — we’re at work!” … etc.

But if they don’t rein it in much at all, you should talk with your boss. You’ll have given Paula and Maureen a chance to hear it from you, they’ll have declined to act, and it’s happening frequently enough and is so over the line that it’s reasonable to ask your boss to intervene. The sexual stuff alone risks causing legal liability for your company if they don’t act (because being subjected to an unwelcome barrage of sex talk is a form of sexual harassment).

If you think it will make things worse if they feel you went behind their backs to your boss, you can be up-front about it ahead of time: “Hey, we clearly have a difference of opinion on this, so I want to be transparent that I’m going to ask Jane to help us navigate it.”

And you’re really not blowing things out of proportion! They’re in the wrong, they’ll benefit from knowing that (even if they don’t realize it immediately), and you’re entitled to work without having to hear references to deep-throating and poop all day.

Read an update to this letter.

{ 252 comments… read them below }

  1. Dust Bunny*

    You also want to find out if, in fact, their managers do think this is inappropriate or if it’s the company culture. I agree that they should rein it in at work but if this is part of a bigger pattern you’ll have other decisions to make.

    1. Sea Anemone*

      That will inform the approach OP takes, but not whether or not OP acts at all. If it’s company culture, I don’t advise approaching a manager about it. I *do* advise approaching the two directly about topics OP doesn’t want to hear.

      Even if it’s not company culture, I advise checking in on what company culture is for making complaints. They might expect OP to address it directly before going to a manager or they might want OP to go a manager and *not* address it directly. I’ve seen both approaches.

    2. Observer*

      Well, the OP says that the other folks talk at a reasonable volume. So I don’t think that acting without basic manners is “company culture”.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        But that doesn’t mean the company is not-OK with the type of conversation the OP is hearing. If they’re that loud, maybe it’s been overheard already and nobody has seen fit to do anything about it.

        1. Sea Anemone*

          Yes, Paula and Maureen have been there 1-2 years, and OP just got there. Presumably the people on the other side of the partition have heard their conversations before.

          OTOH, maybe the people on the other side of the partition have been suffering in silence hoping the Paula and Maureen would shut the heck up already. Who can tell!

          But yeah, you don’t want to be the new person telling established people how to act. That doesn’t mean OP has to put up with noise or listen to conversations that make them uncomfortable, but it does mean getting the lay of the land first.

          1. Haven’t picked a user name yet*

            If they have been there 1-2 years they may have been remote for much of it? It says they currently have a hybrid environment but it may not have been so during the height of covid.

          2. Esmeralda*

            You can be the new person and still object to and report sexual harassment, which sexualized talk can be.

            You can be the new person and still ask co-workers to not talk about offensive topics around you.

            You can be the new person and still not want co-workers to “joke” (= lie) about you to higher ups.

            You can even be the new person and still ask co-workers to not talk loudly/all day long when it gets in the way of you working — even if the talk is innocuous and inoffensive.

            Being the new person does not mean you have to put up with unacceptable behavior. Especially since the OP has already tried a lot of the usual ways to address such behavior.

            1. Sea Anemone*

              Absolutely! Thank you for spotlighting and expanding on that part of my point. It’s important!

            2. Amethystmoon*

              I would think most HR depts. would have an issue with a lot of the stuff they are talking about. Wouldn’t be surprised if they had said racist/homophobic things in the past either. And no you cannot say things against people’s religions at work. I’m personally not religious, but I wouldn’t demean others for being so. I think we all have a responsibility to say something if coworkers are saying things against HR guidelines.

              1. PB Bunny Watson*

                I agree except for one thing… I don’t know that I would equate joke to lie, especially in this circumstance. The two aren’t necessarily wrong about why the OP comes in on those days (as OP has explicitly said that they try to adjust their schedule to minimize how much they have to interact with the two coworkers)… they just haven’t heard it directly from the OP’s mouth. Which you’d think them making such a joke would be enough to make them think about why that might be.

              2. Christmas Cactus*

                Would this meet the criteria, from a legal standpoint, to be considered a hostile work environment?

          3. NerdyKris*

            New people can still be sexually harassed, and sometimes it takes a new person to bring it up to someone who can take action. Nobody should ever have to put up with harassment because “it’s the company culture”.

      2. Sea Anemone*

        I interpreted the “normal volume” to refer to Maureen and Paula, as an explanation for why other people on the other side of a partition would be able to hear their conversation.

        1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

          Same, i.e. “they’re not even taking care to speak quietly when the topic is NSFW.”

    3. Cake or Death?*

      “They say the word “f***” constantly in an office where people only seem to use that language sparingly.”

      Doesn’t seem that it is the culture. Plus, I would assume that OP would have mentioned if others were behaving the same way. If talking about wildly inappropriate things at work is company culture, I’m sure OP would have noticed and wouldn’t just be writing in about these two.

      1. Cait*

        Company culture or not, if it’s affecting your ability to do your work, it should be mentioned. “Guys, I have a really hard time concentrating on my work when you’re talking about diarrhea and orgasms over there. Can you please stop the inappropriate topics or at least take it to the break room?” isn’t an unreasonable request. If they don’t stop, then it’s time to escalate. I think any decent management would be concerned if they found out an employee was feeling uncomfortable and distracted because their office mates were loudly talking about sexual/bathroom/private subject matter.

        1. It's Growing!*

          One might also wonder how those two get any work done at all with all that talking. I mean, I could knit or quilt or color during such a conversation, but I sure couldn’t concentrate on emails to clients or filling out insurance forms or whatever it is they are supposed to be doing.

    4. Onetime Poster*

      Company culture does not preclude legal entitlement to a safe workplace, e.g., sexual harassment. I also don’t think it means that for topics that may not infringe on one’s legal rights that this type of talk can be boiled down to company culture. If the company hired someone, they need to make an effort to ensure the environment and the employee are a match, as best they can. And when there may be a mismatch, it’s not the employee’s fault and the company needs to find a way to mitigate.

    5. rolly*

      “Maureen also laughed when she heard about an unvaccinated person being hospitalized,”

      Assuming they were unvaxxed by choice, I’d have had a hard time not grinning. I probably would not have LOL’d, but that warrants a smile.

      And also sadness about the burden on health workers. But still, a smile.

      1. Stay-at-Homesteader*

        Yup. The ventilator comment? I mean, I have a lot of Feelings about (deliberately) unvaccinated people, but…yikes. that’s quite a thing to say, let alone at work.

        I do remember back when I was cavalier at work, though, and I see how being so subversive can be a thrilling thing to do. They’re young, a little wild, and whether they realize it or not they’re egging each other on. They haven’t been bitten in the ass yet by their own lack of discretion. It would be a kindness to say something before someone else does.

        1. Hippo-nony-potomus*

          “Egging each other on” is exactly it. That’s how it’s gotten so out of control. It also provides guidance to management on how to fix it – move seating so that they aren’t near each other.

          I’m a big fan of nipping these things in the bud. It’s better for them to get their knuckles rapped at age 24 than to continue like this for years without repercussion, then think badly of whomever holds the line on professional norms.

        2. OP - Inappropriate Coworkers*

          Hi, I’m the letter writer here! Thank you for this comment. I feel similarly to you – I can definitely recall a few times when I acted like Maureen and Paula at work in my early 20s, so I feel somewhat empathetic toward them. I’m SURE that they’ll look back at their behavior in a few years and cringe (or at least, I cringe when I think about how I acted!). You’re right that it would be a kind thing to say something to them. Hopefully it doesn’t backfire, lol :)

          1. Lizzo*

            OP, if you’re professional and direct about it, and Maureen and Paula respond with more of the same–or worse–it’s a Them problem, not a You problem.

            I might suggest speaking with your manager proactively *now* about what’s happening and what you’re doing to try and shut it down so that you can focus on your work. Document those conversations, even if it’s just sending an email to yourself at your personal email outlining what you discussed with your boss (the facts about what you’re experiencing, what your action steps are). This may seem excessive, but it’s building a paper trail that you can turn to if there is any denial or retaliation from Maureen and Paula.

          2. Overit*

            You might want to sound out your manager on the company culture before saying amytjing and/or ascertain if these two are the manager’s pets. Because I can guarantee you when you try to talk to them, they are going to go after you in ways small and possibly, big.

        3. quill*

          It combines a lack of empathy, tact, and ability to not make a sex joke that is not expected in a professional setting.

    1. Xavier Desmond*

      While I don’t disagree completely I would probably me a little more charitable. There is definitely some meanness but I think it stems from immaturity rather than malice. That said I wouldn’t want to work with them and OP definitely needs to tell them to cut it out. for everyone’s benefit.

        1. PB Bunny Watson*

          I don’t know. Based on how OP says they’ve responded… they may think she’s just kidding. Like she’s part of the sitcom in their heads. I’m basing this on the line: I’ve tried jokingly telling them to knock it off — e.g., “guys, it’s not even 10 am and you’re already talking about [insert wildly inappropriate topic here]?”

          1. Burger Bob*

            Yeah, that line doesn’t particularly communicate “This is really inappropriate and you need to stop.” It’s a little too lighthearted. It’s not enough to get the message across to people who don’t realize that what they’re doing is wrong.

      1. Michelle*

        …Yeah, I’d bet a fair amount of money that they know what they’re doing, and what they’re doing is aggressively trying to get attention from a captive audience. It’s not a coincidence that they’re just so! interested! in gross and/or controversial topics. They want y’all to know who they are and what they’re about.

        ‘Teasing’ you about your headphones is a giveaway here. They notice that you’re not entirely onboard with their production and it bugs them. Paula’s comment demonstrates the same. They want you to have to listen to them. It’s a power move and a bid for attention.

        It matters, IMO, because if you set the suggested boundary, I think you can reasonably expect an extinction burst* of heightened bad behavior. Like, even if the public conversations stop for a bit, the ‘teasing’ might increase or get downright aggressive.

        Extinction burst: “when the person increases the intensity of the bad behavior in order to overwhelm your fledgling defenses and still get what they want.”

        1. OP - Inappropriate Coworkers*

          Hi, I’m the letter writer for this! I agree with what you’re saying about them enjoying a captive audience for their hot takes and subversive attitudes. Prime example: Maureen regularly makes personal phone calls from her cubicle and talks to the person on the other line about whatever salacious thing she’s got on her mind that day. Once she called a friend just to gossip about something their other friend said about a societal issue, and in the call she firmly outlined her own beliefs about said societal issue (in full earshot of me).

          She also once made a call to her pharmacy to complain about how long it was taking to get her prescriptions filled and named all prescriptions she’s on (as noted in my letter); later in the day she mentioned to me that she was stressed out because her pharmacy was causing her problems…as if I hadn’t heard her on the phone. It seems that she really, really wants people to know when she’s upset about something. I wonder whether maybe she doesn’t feel like she has anyone to talk to about her problems, or maybe she is trying to drum up sympathy from me in her “covert” way. She tends to be an oversharer in conversation anyway, as I’m sure you can imagine.

          From reading Alison’s response and other people’s comments, I do think it’s a kindness to let them know that their remarks could get them in trouble, but I also worry about them teasing me more or complaining/gossiping about me! I don’t care if they talk about me to each other; I just don’t want them badmouthing me to anyone in a management position. Wish me luck, haha

          1. WellRed*

            I don’t know what they’d say to your manager to badmouth you. Honestly, if they give you any pushback in the moment, ask them if they want to known at work for their workplace abilities or their sex life?

          2. BorisTheGrump*

            I think the pharmacy here is a good example of where their inexperience might come into play, since a lot of the discussion today seems to be a debate about whether Paula and Maureen are jerks or just young and dumb. (I think a little of both?) It’s hard to figure out when and how to make sensitive healthcare calls when you share a workspace. And maybe in an ideal world it wouldn’t be so taboo to share information about medical conditions in the workplace. (The fact they’re young means maybe they’re less concerned about discrimination than they will be when they’re older or have seen more people be discriminated against for health/disability reasons). Being discrete about certain religious or political topics at work is also something that takes some time and practice, and is very different from an academic environment. I think those examples are pretty different from the sexual comments, the insensitivity to people who are sick, or being rude to OP when they ask for quiet and space.

            Also I think Allison’s advice is great either way.—whether they’re bad actors or making mistakes in good faith. OP you’re not being overly sensitive or out of line in wanting to talk to them.

            1. PB Bunny Watson*

              Yes, the way they are behaving seems more to me like they are naive. They are operating as though none of this matters. And in some ways, I get it. It would be a wonderful world where we don’t have to worry about what people will think about us if they know what medicines we are on… or a world where half the population doesn’t have to feel embarrassed about something as normal as period blood. The rest… well, the joke about the respirator is something you only tell a very good friend who truly knows you and knows that you’re not a monster. I think that’s a maturity level to a certain extent, but it’s also something some people never learn. There are jokes that you tell anyone, jokes you only tell people you know REALLY well, and there are jokes you only tell yourself. Where that line is depends a lot on whether or not you’re a professional comedian… or just trying to get everyone to hate you.

          3. Red*

            I’m going to college right now (but am in my 30s) and the school’s social media app is about as wild as the conversations you described above (how on earth the school doesn’t curtail it is beyond me). To some degree that’s just how that age group is communicating right now. But also growing up on social media probs has led to some degree of disconnect with how online interaction differs from real world convos. On the app there’re students talking about ending everything but in class in person they’re a lot less dramatic, but there are some who carry that level of drama through every interaction.

            It would be a favor (even if they can’t recognize it right now) to tell them in direct terms that what they’re doing is inappropriate and if necessaary escalate it and let them get in trouble. Sometimes it takes that level of shame to get people to grasp what they’re doing.

          4. Observer*

            I just don’t want them badmouthing me to anyone in a management position. Wish me luck, haha

            If you have reasonable management, I can’t see what they would say that could reflect badly on you, unless they lie. “OP’s a grump and doesn’t like us discussing the details of our period, digestive troubles and intimate encounters with our boyfriends?”

            If you don’t have reasonable management, that’s a whole other set of issues.

          5. Anne Wentworth*

            Oof I’m sorry you’re dealing with this LW. If you think there’s a chance of them preemptively badmouthing you to management, to undermine you before you take it to your superiors, I’d go straight to management now and not talk to Paula & Maureen directly as Alison advised.
            And seconding the advice elsewhere here to document their behavior so you have specific statements, with times & dates; that’ll be valuable in case management feels disinclined to believe you or take action.

          6. Michelle*

            I agree it’s a kindness, and not just for keeping them out of trouble with management. I was very much like this as a young woman – I had a weird, antisocial upbringing that left me confused and desperately lonely as I entered adulthood. That loneliness was part of why I acted that way. The rest was because, looking back, what I really wanted was for people to tell me what the “rules” were. I felt like I was walking around blindfolded, groping for anything that would give me a sense of direction. A clearly stated and consistently maintained boundary would have been SO MUCH BETTER than what I mostly got, which was people finding me intensely off-putting and avoiding me.

            Nobody owed it to me to push past their discomfort and say something that might have made them feel/look like a meanie to the awkward young woman I was. But I remember fondly those who did extend me that kindness.

            Mind you, I don’t think they’ll thank you for it. :P There’s an added dimension here that they’re establishing in-group/out-group dynamics. I think they’re (literally) talking each other into a weird, toxic alliance that’ll turn hostile if called out. I’d maybe have a plan for how to react if/when they ease back on the attention-seeking behavior but start upping their passive-aggressive comments toward you. If you just kind of look stressed and don’t say anything, I think they may take that as a signal to keep pushing their limits. If the boundary’s not reinforced, the inappropriate conversation topics might go right back to the level they are now.

            Anyway. It’d be so lovely if one or more of your co-workers backs you up when you put your foot down. I think that’d go a LONG way toward diluting any resentment they feel at being called out.

          7. Maseca*

            Ugh, I sat by someone like this for awhile. She talked to her cube neighbor all. day. long. It wasn’t as inappropriate as Paula and Maureen’s conversation topics, thankfully, but it felt like a constant, inescapable stream of patter. One day, Chatty Cathy came in complaining about some problem with her eye. Every time someone new arrived nearby, she had to describe her eye pain and how uncomfortable shew as. Everyone asked why she was at work and not at the doctor’s office. It became fairly clear that she wanted the attention and sympathy more than she actually wanted a solution to her problem. I think she finally did leave to get medical treatment after people’s concern started to tip into annoyance that she was just hanging around and complaining.

          8. Jane*

            Hi! As someone who had a manager come to me to speak more quietly in the office, you are doing them a favor. I really didn’t see my behavior/voice level as an issue. Definitely immaturity and trying to make people like me. I thought I was making a more pleasant work environment. Transparently, I didn’t speak like the people you are talking about but having a manager come to me was one of the best things that happened in my career. I am so appreciative that it was brought up to me (even at the time it freaking hurt).

          9. Chickaletta*

            “I don’t care if they talk about me to each other; I just don’t want them badmouthing me to anyone in a management position.”

            Oh no, I’ve run across their type at work before and there is a very good chance they’re doing just this. They already told management in front of you that you think they’re annoying and trying to avoid them. Yikes.

            You have some damage control to do here, and then start thinking preemptively how you’re going to make sure management knows you’re a good team player. Good chance they already see your coworkers for who they are, but if you’re not sure then that’s something to think about.

            Also, bit of advice in general – part of your reputation is reflected by who you surround yourself with. You’re currently in a workgroup that is pretty unprofessional, so you might want to think about how to peel yourself away from this pair and into a better group of coworkers – talk to your manager about what other job opportunities may exist in your company, or getting put into a different team.

          10. MigraineMonth*

            I was a bit of a drama llama in the workplace in my early 20’s, and looking back I wish someone had told me that I was coming off as unprofessional. Unfortunately, I probably would have been very embarrassed in the moment and might have lashed out or been hostile.

            TBH I’m still a bit of a drama llama, but I have a better sense of when it is and isn’t appropriate (and I never rant in emails anymore).

          11. SofiaDeo*

            If they are teasing you/interfering with your work even more in response to you trying to politely ask them to stop, that is definitely hostile behavior IMO and should be taken up the chain of command. They need to learn sooner, rather than later, what “creating a hostile work environment” means. All the comments, etc. that are now merely “unprofessional” increase to hostile if they become severe, pervasive, and persistent enough “to disrupt your work.” You are already wearing headphones to try to minimize the effect these comments are having. Don’t let the fear if them becoming even more hostile stop you from shutting this down. These are not one time incidents. Reasonable people *stop they don’t escalate.

          12. JayNay*

            I thought it was really odd that one of your overly chatty coworkers mentioned this to a manager (“Op thinks we’re annoying and she doesn’t like to come in on days we’re here”). I’m surprised the manager didn’t react to that!
            It’s a weird thing to say about a coworker, even jokingly. I’d definitely have asked “Why would OP think you’re annoying?” at the very least.

  2. Witch*

    It’s not that they’re young, it’s that they’re dumb as bricks. Aged 19-year-old me working with only other women still knew it was inapprops as heck to talk about my /period./

    1. Anon all day*

      I mean, the level of detail and grossness that they’re getting into (where other people not involved in their conversation can here) is totally over the line. But I don’t think it’s automatically a no-no to talk about your period. It’s nowhere near a common conversation, but I’ve definitely had coworkers tell me how they’re feeling particularly crappy during that time of month or vice versa. As long as it’s not gory details, I think it’s more on par with talking about having a headache or something.

      1. Lizzianna*

        I do think there is a generational difference in the appropriateness of discussing one’s period. Not that it’s ever okay to discuss it graphically in the workplace (unless you work for an OBGYN and are trying to get medical details), but I have noticed that Gen Z generally treats the mere existence of periods as less taboo than Millennials or Gen X. Things like, acknowledging cramps, not hiding pads or tampons, etc.

        (That said, by the time they’re in the workforce, they should understand the difference between discussing anything health or bodily-fluid related with your friends vs. you coworkers (or within ear shot of your coworkers). Just like I wouldn’t go into graphic details about my stomach flu at work).

        1. JustaTech*

          I feel like some of this is also that they’re having these conversations at their desks. I know I’ve talked about periods at work before, but it was either in my shared office where I was talking to my office-mate, or in the break room when there weren’t other people around.

          The difference is that when you have borderline conversations at your desk other people at their desks who are trying to work can’t avoid the conversation. Where in the break room people can choose to leave (or ask you to not talk about it).

          So it’s not just the inappropriate conversations, it’s that other people can’t leave when they’re talking.

        2. Anon all day*

          I disagree, at least as to millennials. I’m in my 30s, and I’ve never found discussing the existence of one’s period to be taboo (with friendly, understanding coworkers, of course).

          1. PB Bunny Watson*

            Ditto. I’ve actually resented the fact that so many find it taboo. Not that I want to talk about it or anything, but I hate that a normal bodily function that I can’t really control and never asked for is supposed to be a source of shame for us. Or is seen as on par with talk about feces.

          2. Lizzianna*

            I’m in my late 30s, so while I think of myself as a millennial, I definitely have a lot of traits that align more with Gen X. I guess I was thinking more of women my mom’s age vs. women in their early 20s.

            I mean, my mom was taught by her mom to never say “fart,” it was a “fanny burp,” so that tells you about discussions of bodily functions in my household.

            It doesn’t bother me if others talk about periods (assuming the discussion is not graphic) but it’s not something I’m comfortable talking about with coworkers. I’m sure if someone was keeping track, they’d notice my migraines tend to come on 28 day cycles, but I’m still probably never going to tell people at work that they’re triggered by hormones.

        3. lilsheba*

          Yeah ….periods are private and I for one am never going to discuss that kind of thing with ANYONE. At the same time can we please have the older people stop talking about every bathroom related thing THEY experience? We don’t need to hear it.

          As for the religion part…if people can’t say organized religion is bad, then other people need to stop talking about church, cause that’s offensive to me as an atheist. It goes both ways.

          1. Dutchie*

            I think there’s a difference between mentioning you go to church (an activity) and saying *all* organized religions are bad (an opinion). The latter would be more comparable to someone proclaiming Jesus is Lord and He will soon return to save us all, which I agree would be unacceptable, as a Christian.

            1. quill*

              Same. I’m an atheist and at this point I’m sick of militantly anti-religious / antispirituality atheism as I am with religion in general. Nothing you accomplish by pushing attitudes that it isn’t acceptable to mention anything related to your religion are lessening the power that organized religion has, and in most of the west it only further marginalizes non-christian religions and aids christian groups that recruit based on a persecution complex in indoctrinating members.

              1. Julia*

                I also think being militantly anti-religious is inappropriate at work. Denigrating anyone’s religion at work is incredibly inappropriate.

                If someone asks me directly about my religious beliefs at work I will usually answer “that’s an odd question to ask at work” or that I’m an agnostic. I might discuss my beliefs with a work friend in a quiet way where no one is overhearing us.

                1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

                  Agreed – if you ask me questions about my faith at work, I’ll answer that this isn’t the time or location for that conversation. I am however more than willing to discuss matters of faith when I am “off the clock.”

              2. Artemesia*

                I am old and have never yet observed a ‘militant’ atheist being loud in the office or on a plane or wherever. I have been asked dozens of times in captive spaces including planes and the workplace if I have committed my life to Christ or if I ‘know where I will be spending eternity.’ And saying ‘yes’ doesn’t even stop these people. I know there are aggressive atheists but I have never encountered one and I have been harassed by aggressive Christians many many times.

                1. curly sue*

                  I absolutely have, and more than once. It’s usually a direct overlap with antisemitism, in my case, and takes the form of comments like (at a catered work event) “Skydaddy’s not going to hit you with lightning if you eat bacon, you know.”

                  It’s honestly a tossup as to whether that was more or less annoying than the person (same place, different person) who kept leaving Jews for Jesus pamphlets on my desk.

                2. quill*

                  I mean, they are much easier to find at line than at the grocery store. If, of course, you’re in an area / of a demographic where the assumption is that you are christian or culturally christian.

            2. done*

              I grew up in a christian family and when I realized the bible ends with every non-believer being tortured and killed by jesus and his dad, I noped out. It’s unconscionable for any decent person to rep that ‘faith’ as long as those threats remain integral to its holy book.

          2. Holey Hobby*

            I think it goes both ways in every sense. So you can talk about a funny thing that happened at your Richard Dawkins book group, and they can mention a joke the rabbi told. You can tell coworkers you’re an atheist and they can tell everyone they’re Bahai. But you can’t go up to your Evangelical coworker and tell them that their religion is stupid or evil, and they can’t hand you a Chick tract and tell you you’re going to hell when you die.

            1. UKDancer*

              Definitely. I mean I work somewhere most people feel ok mentioning what they do at weekends which can include Jane saying she went to church and visited her mother or Ali saying he needs a day off for Nowruz celebrations. We don’t discuss the merits of different religions or people’s individual beliefs. That’s personal and private.

              Personally I don’t like many aspects of a lot of religions but work is not the place to say so. I don’t tell my colleagues what I think of their religions and they don’t try to convert me. The details and personal beliefs have never been appropriate discussion topics anywhere I’ve worked.

        4. quill*

          I mean, it’s far more appropriate to say “I’m cranky today – cramps” than “Lol what a gusher this month” no matter what age you are.

          1. Spero*

            I agree with this. To me acknowledging the affect on your mood, having supplies available etc are all about how YOU are coping with the period, and therefore ok. But details about the period itself, level of flow, clots, etc – NOPE NOPE NOPE
            Similarly when I’ve had medical events etc I may say ‘I was surprised by how painful it was’ or ‘man that labor was longer than I expected’ but I’m not going to talk about how long the tear was, how many stitches it had, the volume of blood loss etc.

        5. KaciHall*

          It’s not a generational thing, it’s a personal thing. My mom was very much the type of person to never bring up periods. My step mom was not. Since step-mom ended up giving me the puberty talk (mom thought it was sufficient to toss me a bag of pads before I left for the summer and tell me I might need them and NOTHING else) I have no problem about discussing my period (though any work talk is limited to asking if someone else has a pad!) and my half-sisters are embarrassed to buy pads if were at the grocery store together. I tried every euphemism under the sun when I still lived with mom (and my sisters) and nothing didn’t make her blush and tell me to stop talking about it. I’m a millennial; my younger sisters are probably a generation down.

          1. Blarg*

            I had a mom who was so comfortable talking about periods that I hid when mine started for months cause she’d want to ‘celebrate.’ She insisted on buying me this small garnet ring that I did not want (wasn’t a jewelry wearer in the first place), and I still remember the utter humiliation of the sales guy saying, “oh, is this your birth stone?” and my mom proudly declaring why she was buying it for me. I ‘lost’ that ring the first chance I got.

            I’m so glad your step-mom found a healthy balance for you.

        6. Julia*

          Yeah there is a huge difference between a brief “I have my period” and an in depth discussion. Asking a coworker if they have extra pads/tampons is someting I would think is OK. Discussing exactly why you prefer a particular menstrual product not OK.

          I know some people find anything period related inappropriate so I try to be discreet about it. I’m tryign to keep it at the level I would ask someone for a safety pin for a clothing mishap, lettng someone know their fly is down or the button at bra level has popped open.

        7. Engineer with Breast Cancer*

          I’m a Millennial, and I have no problems with acknowledging cramps, pads and tampons. In the good old days when I had periods, occasionally someone would ask me if I was feeling unwell. I acknowledged the issue “I’m just on my period. It’s no big deal and I should feel better soon” and redirected the topic “So, you wanted to talk about X”. I didn’t feel uncomfortable bringing it up in front of my male coworkers, and they didn’t seem uncomfortable hearing it. Mostly, they said something along the lines of “Sorry you’re not feeling well. Yeah, let’s talk about X”.

      2. Salymander*

        Yes this is true, Anon all day. I agree with your read on this. Totally ok to mention periods. That is a totally normal thing. And you are so right, people can talk about totally normal things without getting obnoxious. Graphic details about any bodily function, however, are not really a good work topic. Same goes for really detailed and personal family and relationship stuff. Ok to quietly mention some things to a work friend, or to a manager if you need time off or something. I just don’t want every work day to be an impromptu, nonconsensual therapy session at top volume.

        These two loud, inappropriate people might get annoyed by anyone setting boundaries around this stuff, but OP would be doing them a huge favor by doing so. This behavior may be ok in some workplaces, but it is by no means acceptable everywhere. Letting these two know that before a manager decides to shut it down is a kindness.

      3. Raboot*

        Yeah, that topic was among the least offensive imo. Obviously they shouldn’t discuss details any more than with other bodily functions, but saying “I’m on my period” is way more appropriate than “deepthroat a ventilator”.

    2. Everything Bagel*

      I think the period talk is probably the least expensive thing they’re talkin about, from the sounds of it. I have no idea why they think it’s appropriate to talk about sex at work. They know people are on the other side of the wall who can hear them.

    3. Mid*

      Eh, I think that’s probably the least inappropriate topic they’re covering. Periods happen to 50% of the world. *How* they discuss it matters, but my side job is an all-period having group of people and so period talk happens fairly frequently. Not in a graphic manner, in a “does anyone have any good meds for cramps/a spare tampon” manner. Similar to talking about a headache.

    4. CCC*

      Idk– I don’t see how talking about periods should be any different from talking about having a cold or any other bodily ailment. It’s gross/weird to go into detail (my snot is so green!; Sudafed is meth don’t take it!), but I don’t think it’s off limits altogether (ugh this cold is giving me a headache!; I’ve been using a new decongestant called Snotinex and it works great).
      And before someone says along the lines of “but periods come from your no no parts,” I’d say the same about a gastric issue. It’s no biggie to tell a coworker that your digestion hasn’t been right since you ate at Willy’s Fish Shack or whatever, at least in my office. I’m sure there are offices where it’s not okay, but in that situation I’d imagine that body talk is off the table altogether.

    5. Chickaletta*

      I’ve worked with 40 and 50-year-old women who discuss these types of inappropriate things at work. It’s not just an age thing.

      1. Chickaletta*

        For clarification: in an inappropriate way/too much detail/making it a one-way-conversation with no regard to whether the listener is interested.

    6. Mannequin*

      Periods are approximately discussions for work and mixed company. We don’t over come the stigma by catering to it.

      1. Splendid Colors*

        There’s a difference between mentioning periods (and associated supplies & remedies) and going into literally gory detail about body fluids from a period. Lots of people are really bothered by blood whether it’s related to periods, surgery/injury, or meat, so you need to pick your audience more carefully for that level of detail.

  3. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

    There’s nothing overreacting about e.g. saying ‘guys, save these topics of conversation for the pub after work eh? It’s not appropriate for the office’

    (Which is what I said a few years back when someone was discussing…errr..graphic reproductive matters in the office)

    Then if they continue a ‘I’m serious, you need to take these kind of conversations outside of work’. And then if they continue yup, escalate to management.

    Speaking from a manager perspective I’d be very interested in hearing that some people are making their coworkers so uncomfortable that they are not happy coming into work.

    1. Sara without an H*

      This. In the US, I think a case could be made that what they’re doing is creating a hostile environment (whether sexual or religious harassment). In either case, as a manager, I’d really, really want to know about it.

      And you’re right — the OP really needs to throw a flag. I know it’s awkward, and I guarantee that these two will sulk, but the first thing either the manager or HR will ask is, “Have you told them that the language was unwelcome and that they needed to stop?”

      1. Splendid Colors*

        I was trying to join a local artist collective, and I am 90% sure they were deliberately trying to dissuade me from joining by making it clear that they spend most of the day chatting about their sex lives, drinking, and drugs. That’s not really what I want to listen to, I won’t have anything to contribute, and frankly that much talking about ANYTHING would interfere with my concentration. I suspect that their studio doesn’t fall under EEOC regulations but I also don’t think I’d have a good working relationship if I lawyered up to get them to STFU.

  4. Lacey*

    This is such a frustrating situation. You’re not wrong, but I know how difficult it can be to say something. I worked at a company that had a larger culture of being very work appropriate at all times – but my department was totally different and people talked about all kinds of inappropriate things and used language that got them in trouble when it was overheard by people from other parts of the company.

    With normal coworkers, I think they’d have already gotten the hint. Even though these people had no filter, they were pretty quick to realize I wasn’t really into their kind of conversation and they toned it down around me. Not that I was offended or said anything, just they realized I wasn’t joining in because I didn’t enjoy it and they weren’t jerks.

    1. Homebody*

      It’s a really weird thing to navigate, especially when you’re the perceived minority of the group!

      A couple of weeks ago I was shopping at a local bookstore, and the two young employees working that day were very similar to Paula and Maureen. No matter where I was in the store I could hear them talking in DEEP detail about their sex lives, opinions on religion and politics, etc. It was incredibly uncomfortable and after about 20 minutes I ended up leaving. I kept going back and forth on whether or not I should say something, but ended up deciding as a customer it would be inappropriate and probably not well-received.

      I couldn’t imagine being a captive audience to these two 24/7. I think OP would be doing them a kindness by letting them know about boundaries around work conversations, but I could also see the two doubling down HARD because “no one else is complaining.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        A business manager most assuredly would want to know if their employees discussions were driving away customers. (Assuming the customer is complaining about graphic description beyond simple mention of something like same-sex or interracial couples.)

    2. Aggretsuko*

      I’d be extremely nervous that these two would openly pick on me if I said anything, to be honest. They give me that vibe all over the place. (Disclaimer: I wasn’t thrilled with things my former officemates said and they sure did pick on me.)

      I think if it was me and I was determined to say something, I’d rather the manager be the messenger rather than me, and hopefully it be done in such a way that it wasn’t obvious that I was the one who objected.

  5. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    Sheesh. OP, I’m surprised you’ve gone along with it for so long.

    “Things you can talk about in the dorm bathroom” != “Things you can talk about at work”

  6. Observer*

    OP, this is NOT just about not knowing what workplace norms are. These two are a pair of obnoxious brats. They sound like they are kindergartners in adult bodies, to be honest. The fact that they are discussing very personal and private stiff where everyone at work can hear them could be chalked up to not getting workplace norms. But “all X is bad”? There are very few values for “X” that are reasonably polite in a group whose views you don’t know. As fro talking about all of this stuff at the volume level you are describing, they seem to have not heard about “indoor voices”. And they KNOW that it’s making it hard for you to concentrate, but they are blaming YOU for being grouchy, rather than thinking about the possibility that maybe they could just. . . talk a little more quietly?

    I don’t know if it’s just immaturity, selfishness, or just being jerks. But I suspect it’s going to be hard to get them to understand about workplace norms, because that tends to work with people who understand the basic concept of being somewhat considerate of others in their environment. They apparently don’t understand the concept.

    Also, don’t feel like you got “Thrown under the bus”, even if that’s what they were trying to do. If the manager is reasonable – especially if they have heard this pair in action – they are not going to be side-eying YOU, but them.

    1. Forrest*

      I disagree quite a lot with this— it is almost certainly immaturity, and it isn’t that uncommon. “Being considerate of others” is a really flexible thing— what’s considerate in one space isn’t considerate in another, and you have to learn and re-learn norms in different spaces.

      If you start a job where you’re the only younger one and you’re surrounded by more experienced colleagues, you adjust to a more appropriate norm pretty quickly. But these two are creating their own norm, even though they don’t know it— they’re judging what’s appropriate by each other, and getting it very wrong. But it’s not fair to dismiss them as either professionals or people without giving them some direct feedback and a chance to re-calibrate.

      They may be jerks or assholes or inconsiderate! But that’s also true of people who have a much faster adjustment to workplace norms. The stuff they are saying at the moment is pretty typical thoughtless-never-really-been-challenged young-person-stuff, not an indication of a fixed and unchangeablr character failing.

      1. Observer*

        The stuff they are saying at the moment is pretty typical thoughtless-never-really-been-challenged young-person-stuff, not an indication of a fixed and unchangeablr character failing

        I’m not saying “unchangeable”. But also, absolutely NOT “typical young person stuff.

        And it’s just as well – these two are really bad coworkers, and I can see why any employer would hesitate to knowingly hire people like them. I certainly would not want to paint the young people I know with their brush!

        1. Forrest*

          I didn’t say “typical young person”, I said “typical thoughtless-never-been-challenged young person”— as in, not all young people, but equally not such an outlier that it makes sense to make assumptions about their essential nature as people.

          1. Dutchie*

            I’m currently taking a class with 120 freshmen in college. I have heard exactly none of them say anything even close to what mention in this letter. Blaming this on immaturity or “thoughtless but never been challenged” is doing a disservice to all the young people who are compassionate, nice and kind and would never say or think anything like this.

            These people are mean and unkind and had they been older they might have been corrected into not expressing it as much, but there are plenty of people in their fifties who can be bullies in a similar way.

            1. Soup of the Day*

              The mature young people you described are clearly not the thoughtless young people Forrest is talking about. I’m glad that your freshmen behave themselves in class, but can you honestly say you’ve never met a young person like OP is describing? I’ve BEEN that young person, and I’ve certainly worked with a few. It’s exactly like Forrest described – “not an indication of a fixed and unchangeable character failing,” but a mark of immaturity that comes from lack of experience. It’s easy to get so caught up in what your coworkers are doing that you start to think it’s normal, and when the coworker in question is also lacking in experience, the “norm” you think exists is likely not the actual norm. And like you said yourself, the way people grow out of this is by being corrected.

              I’m also doubtful that you can overhear the conversations of all 120 freshmen in your class in order to say that NONE of them ever talk about things like religion or sex, but I digress.

              1. Observer*

                but can you honestly say you’ve never met a young person like OP is describing?

                I’ve met people like that at all age levels. This has nothing to do with age (even adding in the “unchallenged” part). And it’s not even about never having been challenged,- they ARE being challenged albeit in a low key way and they are doubling down. Unless by “challenged” you mean “smacked down hard.”

                1. Soup of the Day*

                  No one is saying all young people are like this, or that no old people are like this – just that this is a specific brand of young person that many of us have encountered before. Of course people can be loud and obnoxious at any age, but sometimes a person is loud and obnoxious because of their lack of work and life experience, and often people without much work and life experience are young. Often, not always.

                  I don’t think putting earbuds in when they talk really counts as a challenge – it sounds like they’ve interpreted it as the OP having a problem with them because OP is a stick in the mud, rather than understanding that their behavior is actually the problem.

            2. This is a name, I guess*

              Also, a college class is closer to a work meeting than a general workplace. There’s not a ton of time or space to have meandering personal conversations. Many of those students talk about personal stuff, but more likely in the dorm or at the dining hall.

        2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          They’re bad workers because they are chatting instead of working! Their manager clearly doesn’t give them enough to do.

      2. ariel*

        I agree: “these two are creating their own norm, even though they don’t know it— they’re judging what’s appropriate by each other, and getting it very wrong. But it’s not fair to dismiss them as either professionals or people without giving them some direct feedback and a chance to re-calibrate.”

        Sure, college students are respectful around “adults” but when they’re with each other, it’s not always so great. Sounds like Paula and Maureen need some recalibrating to workplace acceptable topics, but it doesn’t make them uniquely monstrous.

    2. anonymath*

      Just gonna chime up in defense of my pre-schooler — we’ve had conversations already about where it’s ok to talk about poop (at home, not at school outside of the bathroom; exceptions to be made if you have a tummy problem), where it’s ok to talk about underwear (at home, not the grocery store or the dinner table), where it’s ok to yell, what kinds of questions & comments are ok in public at various volumes about religion and attire….. and the 4.75 yr old is 100% keyed in on “no bodily fluids talk outside of home/the actual bathroom”.

      1. Lin*

        Please stop doing this! I cannot believe we are still treating bodily functions as something to be ashamed of.

        1. Tali*

          Most adults don’t discuss poop and underwear at work, the grocery store, or the dinner table. Learning these is part of learning social norms, not learning shame…

    3. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      Agree on all parts, especially your last sentence. The fact that they reported to a manager that OP finds them distracting, prefers to work without their constant disruption like they were sharing hot gossip says more about them than about OP.
      OP was not thrown under the bus. Instead the pair showed how obtuse and immature they are.

  7. NeutralJanet*

    I have some sympathy for Paula and Maureen because if this is an office where most people use the F word sparingly, then it presumably is an office where people do sometimes curse and otherwise talk in a somewhat “unprofessional” manner. The two of them are over the line, but it can be difficult to know exactly where the line is, especially if you’re relatively new to the workforce. That said, my sympathy is limited because it sounds like they’ve gotten enough indirect hints that they should have figured out by now that they are crossing the line. It would be a kindness to tell them directly that they need to rein it in…but unfortunately it doesn’t sound like they’ll be that receptive to hearing it from you.

    1. Anon all day*

      I disagree. I don’t think it’s super uncommon for adults to say curse words now and then, even at work, so I think highlighting that it happens but rarely shows that there is a line.

      1. NeutralJanet*

        I don’t know that we are disagreeing! There is a line, but I don’t think it’s easy for young people to see it. Thinking back to when I was in my early 20s, I knew how to talk to my grandmother—no swearing, nothing off-color, etc—and how to talk to my friends—more or less anything goes—but had trouble telling where the appropriate middle ground was. They definitely should be more aware than they are, especially given that OP at least has been noticeably uncomfortable around them, but unspoken norms around “swearing (and/or other off-color talk) is acceptable but only this much” can be hard to parse.

    2. generic_username*

      I agree. Like, how clueless do you have to be to not realize that you should modify your behavior when someone is putting on headphones and changing their WFH days to avoid your conversations…..?

    3. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      I see what you are saying. They don’t understand nuance or situational factors. Again, they paused one of their inappropriate conversations to tell a manager (or even a peer) that OP preferred not to be around them because they bothered him/her…illustrates that they don’t know how to read a room.
      And that the person they “told on” OP to didn’t say anything to contradict this, is giving them no guidance.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        Yeah, you’d think the manager would have have a private word with them to let them know that they are supposed to keep quiet enough for others to get their work done. OP wouldn’t have been privy to this conversation had it happened, but she should have seen some improvement in their behaviour had it happened.

    4. Observer*

      but it can be difficult to know exactly where the line is, especially if you’re relatively new to the workforce.

      If it were just a matter of using the f word more often that others, that’s one thing. But the level of detail and NOISE the op describes is so far off from “occasional unprofessionalism” that it’s not even in the same building. And if you’re coworker is avoiding working around you but not others, you have your line! It’s not that they don’t know, it’s that they don’t like it!

    5. anonymous73*

      Cursing was the last thing OP mentions. It’s not about being clueless to workplace norms, it’s inappropriate to social norms. I curse like a sailor, but if I’m in mixed company I don’t just let the F bombs fly out of my mouth. I understand that some people aren’t comfortable with that kind of language and I respect that. And to me the cursing and inappropriate topics are less concerning than the fact that they are loud enough to distract the OP and are constantly socializing. Do they not have enough work to do? Or do they not care if they get it done? I’m sure others are driven crazy by these 2 and something needs to be said. A lot of people are afraid to speak up because they think it’s rude. But they’re the rude ones.

    6. Falling Diphthong*

      I suspect this is a large part of what’s going on–stuff that would be okay at a 1 or 2, but they keep it dialed up to 7.

  8. Sea Anemone*

    I did say that it’s nice to be in the office on a quiet day because it’s easier to concentrate when there aren’t as many people around; I never said it was because I thought they specifically were annoying. Paula was just teasing, but I felt like I was kind of being thrown under the bus!

    You have a right to prefer a quieter atmosphere and to ask them to tone it down on whatever topics you don’t want to hear at work. It’s worth investigating why you think you were being thrown under the bus. Thrown under the bus for what? For liking quiet? Is that something one gets thrown under the bus for? That’s a kind of defensive reaction to having your words paraphrased back to you, and it’s worth investigating why that might be.

    1. EPLawyer*

      I see it as more the OP making it her fault than putting the blame where it belongs. She is trying so hard to give them the benefit of the doubt that she is blaming herself rather than them. So of course she feels hurt by them teasing her about her wanting reasonable boundaries at work.

      1. Sea Anemone*

        That’s what I think, too. It’s a feeling that is going to get in the way of asserting boundaries.

    2. Anima*

      Uh, I had that happen too me quite often (“that’s not what I said”) and it is the feeling of having your words twisted to mean something totally different which can feel like I’ve been thrown under the bus. Especially in front of a supervisor or the like. Yeah, I feel that reaction is appropriate here.

      1. Sea Anemone*

        Were OP’s words twisted to mean something different, though? Seems more like Paula intuited what OP meant, since OP specifically says that they changed their WFH days to avoid Paula and Maureen.

        1. JustaTech*

          I can see how the OP could feel that Paula was saying this in a way to imply that the OP was “being mean” to Paula and Maureen, since Paula did say “OP thinks we’re annoying”.
          Which is true, but OP hasn’t said that *to* the chatty duo, and probably hoped that they (OP) were being professional enough to not make their (very reasonable) annoyance so obvious.

          So I totally get how OP could feel very exposed at that moment.

          1. OP - Inappropriate Coworkers*

            Hi! You’re spot-on here.

            I would never say something quite so harsh as “I think you’re annoying” to a coworker, haha. They asked me what WFH days I was choosing, and my words were something like: “I’m coming in on one day when a lot of people are here so I can socialize a little, and then a couple of days when not a lot of people are here so I’m focused more on work.” (I wasn’t even trying to give them a hint with that one, lol. Like I said, my job requires me to write pretty much all day and often on a deadline, so I really need to have those focused days!)

            I’m definitely friendly to Maureen and Paula, so I was also surprised by the specific use of the word “annoying.” I am not really too worried of THEIR opinion of me, though, so much as I am worried about members of management thinking I’m rude to others. Because I’m new to the company, my colleagues don’t know much of my character yet, and so having these two take my innocuous comment and then twist it around before telling a manager made me worried that that manager might think I actually go around telling people they’re annoying, haha. I may think it, but I wouldn’t ever say it ;)

      2. Show Globe*

        But the way they ‘twisted the words’ reflects badly on the two talkers, not on the LW. Why should the LW feel badly if the manager thinks she’s avoiding the two loud talkers? Even Isfahan she didn’t say those words out loud, it’s not a bad thing.

    3. Polecat*

      For not being a team player, for not liking to socialize and be around her coworkers, for choosing to stay at home because she doesn’t like her coworkers. I think it was pretty clear.

    4. generic_username*

      Well, Paula didn’t say that OP just wanted quiet. Paula said OP found her annoying, which makes OP look like she’s being mean….

    5. Forrest*

      Yeah, I kind of agree with this. You weren’t thrown under a bus, OP, because there was no bus! If there had been some kind of professional repercussions for you that would be one thing, but the problem here is just that Maureen and Paula don’t like you because you’re showing up their immaturity. That is genuinely uncomfortable and annoying, but be assured it’s a them-problem, not a you-problem— their perception of you isn’t a problem you need to solve.

      I think part of what’s making this hard for you is that you’re not far from this age or stage yourself, and having it implied that you’re a curmudgeon / stick-in-the-mud / boring old grown-up is a weird feeling. But it’s genuinely ok: you’ve crossed the line from “slightly clueless newbie” to “seasoned professional”, and this is perhaps the first time it’s been quite so visible, and it feels new and a bit awkward, but it’s genuinely ok. Lean in to being that person who is a bit more senior and gets to set the tone for the office: you are allowed to do that, it isn’t always the most comfortable, but it’s a thing that comes to all of us.

    6. CanYallShutUp*

      Oh yes, people absolutely get treated badly for liking quiet. I have a direct supervisor who treats the fact that I find it impossible to concentrate when there are three conversations going on around me as a character flaw on my part. It’s not okay, but it does happen.

    7. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      I get the impression that OP feels that way because the manager in question did not make any comments like “ah but OP needs to concentrate on her work” or “if OP is having to come in on the days you’re at home just to be able to work in peace, maybe you could dial it down on the days when you are all in the office together”. That was a big management fail, I’m not surprised that OP doesn’t feel like they have her back.

  9. PT*

    I supervised teenagers and college students, and I would just say, “This is not an appropriate topic of conversation for work.” It wasn’t a professional environment, we were open to the public so we had people around when they were not working, and some of them knew each other from school, so I would also toss in a bit about “consent,” ex: “Fergus and Tangerina, you two are friends and you consent to that sort of conversation/joking. But you cannot have that conversation around other people, because they did not consent to it.” I wanted there to be a clear line, because two people might have a personal conversation in an empty room during a slow time but if a third person walked in, they needed to know to stop it and change the subject.

    1. PT*

      I also have to add, it’s very likely they’ll roll their eyes and give you attitude like you’re the Hall Monitor, but they’re still in the wrong. Don’t let them use their teen-social-aggression on you.

      1. Scout*

        But she’s not their supervisor, so it’s not appropriate for her to tell them what they can and can’t do (as if she were indeed their supervisor).

        1. HelenofWhat*

          You don’t have to be someone’s supervisor to tell them clearly to cut it out with explicit subjects at work. That’s in every anti-harassment training I’ve ever seen in my career. What are they going to do, tell your boss that you told them to stop making sexual references? Pout like children?

    2. Lizzianna*

      I supervise interns, and this is how I frame it too. Our work involves time in the field, and when you have to spend an hour in a car with someone, the conversation can get pretty free-wheeling.

      Unfortunately, not everyone is comfortable speaking up in the moment when they’re 15 min into an hour drive and know they have to spend the next 45 min with the people they’re saying something to. Framing it as consent seems to make sense to them. (We’ve had to have the same discussion about overly political talk radio/podcasts and graphic music. Frankly, I don’t care what you listen to in your truck alone, but if you’ve got someone else in the car, you need to keep your radio work-appropriate).

    3. Lily Rowan*

      It’s so much easier if you’re their supervisor — I get why this is hard for a colleague. But yeah, in general, it’s a kindness to teach people about workplace norms and what is appropriate. I had someone reporting to me (years ago, but not THAT many years ago) who would come to the office, pick up the phone, and start calling her friends. This was her first office job, so I just told her not to do it anymore. It was fine, because she is a normal person who wanted to do a good job!

    4. Polecat*

      In this case though, the OP is not a supervisor and is also much newer to the company. What a supervisor should do in this case versus a new co-worker is quite different.

  10. Popinki*

    You’ve got a lot more restraint than I have, OP. I’d have been sticking my fingers in my ears and going “lalalalala I can’t hear youuuuu!” from the beginning.

  11. EPLawyer*

    OP, you have tried to be gentle in the interest of not rocking the boat. The problem is they think you are just joking because you have not explicitly said “please stop. I do not want to hear graphic things in the office.” Even when they said rude things about you to the boss, you just chalked it up to teasing.

    They are not mind readers. They do not know its really a problem if you don’t tell them. The people from other departments are probably as bothered as you but feel they cannot say something because its a different department. You would be doing everyone a favor if you just tell them politely but clearly that such conversations are NOT appropriate to the workplace.

    If they react all butt hurt, then escalate it to the boss.

    1. MsM*

      I feel like there might even be value in explicitly acknowledging, “I’ve tried to keep the previous requests to dial it back light because I genuinely think you think you’re just making conversation with each other, but it’s gotten to a point where just trying to ignore it isn’t working, so this is me being clear that I need it to stop.”

      1. Forrest*


        And expect a certain amount of muttering, Looks and mardiness from them. If they don’t make the change, or change but stay mardy about it after a couple of weeks, escalate. It might need an actual manager conversation to sort this out. But it’s entirely possible that this will reset the relationship and P&M’s work mode and you’ll all be good colleagues in the future.

  12. Two Chairs, One to Go*

    OP, try Alison’s scripts and let us know how it goes! That sounds so incredibly annoying.

    But also…when do they work if they’re chatting all day? Even if it was 100% work appropriate topics that’s still distracting.

    1. Forrest*

      It depends what you’re doing. There are lots of jobs, especially low-level entry ones, where it’s completely possible to chat and still get all your work done.

      1. anonymous73*

        That’s irrelevant. When you’re at work you need to be respectful of those around you, and if your constant chatting with your cube neighbor is distracting to your other cute neighbors you need to rein it in.

        1. Raboot*

          No, it’s not irrelevant, they were answering a specific question about whether or not it’s possible to chat and also work. They did not say “chatting all day is cool and good”. It’s good practice to read the context for a comment before replying to it instead of looking at it in a vacuum.

      2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        If I were their manager and noticed how much chit-chat there was, I’d be thinking they clearly have the time to take on more duties.
        Or maybe down-size their team to just one person instead of double trouble.

  13. cubone*

    I want to say I have had many “younger” colleagues on this age range who never did this (and neither did I), but a few years back I had 2 young colleagues who were EXACTLY like this. I could avoid it easier because I didn’t sit close to them (it was much lunchroom discussion), but I remember thinking how unaware they seemed that this was not workplace appropriate (they were showing each other – and anyone who was interested – the various d*ick pics they’d received on Tinder) and tried to bring some attention to it lightly, saying like: “gosh you’re lucky no one from HR is here!”. One of them turned to me absolutely flabbergasted and said “why??”

    I have so many thoughts about it but really don’t know what the best way to handle it is. I do think some people think pride themselves on being “open” or “honest” without understanding that that doesn’t absolve you from respecting other peoples boundaries. In fact that was one of the most eye opening conversation I had with one of these employees. She was bragging that she had these kind of conversations with her last manager, because they knew she “had no boundaries”. I asked “but what about their boundaries?” and got back: “what do you mean??”

      1. Former Young Lady*

        Yep. And it’s funny how such people can never handle feedback themselves.

        “Your ‘telling it like it is’ is alienating people and making them dislike you.”

        “OMG how very DARE you?!”

      2. anonymous73*

        Yep. I had a work friend (key work HAD) who used to always use the excuse of being brutally honest. What she didn’t understand was that if I didn’t ask for her opinion, that her honesty wasn’t needed and often hurt my feelings.

    1. LawBee*

      I have a friend who tells me FAR too much about everything bedroom related. She started one conversation with “well, you know I have no boundaries” and was a little stunned when I replied “yeah, but I do, and this is more than I need to know!”

      Unfortunately her need to tell me apparently outweighed my need to not hear it. Best of luck, OP. I suspect the smart thing for management to do is to separate them.

  14. Non-Violent Dove*

    Oh, jeez. I can relate to this. I had the exact same situation happen. I didn’t have a full conversation with the colleagues in question (aside from asking them to keep it down many times that I was on the phone) and instead I went with another annoyed colleague to their manager. Who totally got that it was a problem, and then “solved” it by telling the noisy ones that someone complained and not giving them any further guidance or correction. Which very much didn’t work – then they were loud and nasty, complaining about someone complaining about them and musing out loud who it was.

    So, uh, I wish you the best OP.

    1. Polecat*

      Yeah, I can see exactly what’s gonna happen if the OP talks to them and it isn’t going to be pretty. I worked in a mean girl office, although the girls in question were in their 30s and 40s. They don’t generally take kindly to being corrected by someone who is their peer rather than their manager.

      1. Lisanthus*

        Same here. No one reined in one of my previous jobs’ 40-something versions of Paula and Maureen even though managers could hear them screaming profanities across the cube area to each other about clients (not acceptable in the office for anyone else), loud discussions of bodily issues, recaps of family drama and TV show drama…etc.

        The first day I was hired for a job that required a lot of concentration and data work, the ringleader announced with a smirk, “We’re loud. Buy some headphones.”

        My manager sat in an office nearby — and could hear them — so knew it was a problem. When I complained they pushed it forward as “Paula and Maureen are screaming so loudly on a daily basis that my employee can’t use the phone or concentrate without headphones” but were stymied due to organizational politics. Thus I asked for as much WFH status as possible so I could do my job, which they granted.

        “Who does SHE think SHE is to work from home? Oooh, SHE’s wearing headphones again, guess she doesn’t LIKE us…” was the result from Paula, Maureen, and their coterie whenever I came in.

        I wound up leaving for a number of reasons, but that was definitely one of them.

        OP, unfortunately, if Paula and Maureen aren’t fired you may be stuck doing the same. But if you go to your manager, what I’d emphasize is that they are so continually loud and disruptive, in addition to the completely inappropriate topic discussions for the office, that they’ve forced you to wear headphones in the office and change your in-office schedule in order to get your job done. Ask for a new seating area if it’s possible. Make it about their actions’ sustained negative impact on your work and therefore the company’s bottom line.

        Good luck.

  15. O*

    Well you did have the thought that they’re annoying and distracting and too much. So you committed a thought crime!

  16. AnonNY*

    These two sound really over the top but I am cringing at the memory of some of the things I discussed in the office when I was in my 20s. And for sensitive topics we knew we shouldn’t discuss in our cubicle farm office, my colleagues who were my peers and I would simply have long discussions about it **over work email**. CRINGE. It would be a kindness for you to clue them in that they need to stop this–and hopefully if they listen, it will create a better working atmosphere for you too. Good luck!

    1. Nusuth*

      Same here. My first professional experience was as an intern at a firm that employed some twenty interns (ranging from college-aged to post-secondary degree) and for some reason the office was laid out so that all of the interns shared an annex (like, on the other side of the floor, requiring swiping in and out) with IT and HR. The HR rep was in an office an often other places, but the environment of a big intern pool, nowhere near our actual supervisors, got….rowdy. I had SO much fun at the time but often think back and cringe for the poor IT department.

    2. Soup of the Day*

      Same. At my first job out of college, my department was full of ladies in their early 20s and we definitely talked to each other the way we would at a bar. It was just because that was how we were used to talking anyway, and since we were all on board with it there was no reason to change. We just figured that our older colleagues were quiet all day because they couldn’t relate to us. Now I know that they were probably super annoyed!

      It’s really easy to get caught up in what you perceive to be the “vibe” of your department at work. I’ve done wildly unacceptable things because my coworkers were doing them, too. It certainly doesn’t make their behavior okay, but I really doubt they have any idea of just how they’re coming off. They probably think it makes them sound cool and relatable to talk about that stuff at work.

    3. JustaTech*

      I had a coworker who understood that some things shouldn’t be discussed at work. So she would either try to whisper (which I shut down by insisting I couldn’t hear her so she either had to speak at a normal volume or stop talking) or she would use work Skype to talk about.
      One day she showed me something particularly salacious from a colleague down the hall and I said “you know that those are part of the company record like email, right?”
      Oh the look on her face!

  17. Emotional Support Care’n*

    Ugh. This sounds more like a pair of cliquey, immature, young 20-somethings at a table with drinks and appetizers, not at an office.

    I really feel for you, because they haven’t figured out discretion yet, and it’s going to hurt them if they don’t. It could also be detrimental to you, by association and with their “teasing” and complaints. Please give them the courtesy of a head’s up. If their behavior doesn’t change, or becomes vindictive, go to management. Do document what’s going on so you can be specific.

  18. Nick*

    Frankly, I wouldn’t bother with talking to them. They made it clear that they have no compunction whatsoever with trying to create a negative impression of you with management. I would have advised you to address it right then as a matter of fact.

    “That is right, I do not like working around you two because of the incredibly inappropriate things you discuss, from your graphic discussion of your sex life, sexual topics in general, your trash talking of religion, your political discussions, your arguments with SOs, and all while you are supposed to be working.”

    As a manager I am all for employees working things out amongst themselves, but this crosses a line that I need to know about. Sure, they may stop this in front of you, but what about the rest of the workforce? I would want the opportunity to squash this before I needed to issue disciplinary actions.

  19. SomebodyElse*

    As a manager, I’ve always had a rule (and cited it when appropriate) that office talk should be at the PG13 level. A couple of random swear words (but generally not the F-bomb), some adult natured discussions (but not explicit or detailed), and some adult themed jokes (but not not harassment level or targetting).

    I think the average person understands the nuanced difference between “R” rated movies and “PG-13” so it’s a pretty easy bar to set.

    As a coworker though, I’m not real sure how effective it would be for you to talk to them. You can certainly try the “Woah- PG-13 in the office guys, save the “R” rated talk for the bar” It is going to be more effective coming from your boss.

    I think the best way to handle it is “Hey Boss, I hate to bring this up, but feel I need to. Paula and Maureen spend a lot of time on topics that are best left out of the office. It’s affecting my ability to concentrate on X, and Y. I really don’t want to be in the role of hall monitor, but I thought you should know they are definitely crossing professionalism lines with their discussions. I’ve tried mentioning it myself directly, but nothing has changed. Can you help with this?”

    1. Critical Rolls*

      I worked in construction for a while, and the rule for my office was I expected people to be in control of their swearing. Swear if you decide to, don’t reflexively make the f-word three parts of speech in every sentence. It was pretty effective.

      1. SomebodyElse*

        Similar working environment :)

        Trust me when I say “Woah – PG13 guys*!” comes as a natural exclamation for me

        *Mixed group of men and women neither was immune from having to be reminded on occasion/

      2. The Rural Juror*

        Also coming from construction, our swear words in that office were usually more “poetic.” As in, you should use them sparingly and only to add emphasis to a statement. In my opinion, it’s not that they should never be used in the workplace, but that they lose their value when they’re used flippantly.

    2. JustaTech*

      In college I had an organic chemistry professor who instituted “family lab” in his labs; meaning no swearing in lab. We grumbled about it a little bit, but we also realized that a lot of us swore reflexively and we should probably ease back on the F-bombs.

      And besides, in o-chem lab you need to save the swearing for when you spill something really bad!

  20. Scott*

    I had a job a few years ago that I only stuck for a few months, partly because the “lifers” had no concept of appropriateness. Everything was commented on, from my weight to my sex life, and it was common for people to show graphic memes to each other on lunch breaks etc. When I asked people in the team why they tolerated it, they said “oh, this is just how it is here.” There’s no reason why it should ever have to be like this in any workplace. Give yourself the respect to know you deserve to be treated better, to be treated to a workplace where you don’t have to opt-out of gross, uncomfortable and upsetting topics.

    And when you call them out on their inappropriateness, remember: you are, in fact, doing them a favour. Because when the time comes for them to move on – and they won’t be able to move on together simultaneously, that’s not how jobs work – they’ll discover that workplace norms are generally not like this, and you’re giving them realistic and fair expectations of what working life can and should be like for the rest of their careers.

  21. Cake or Death?*

    “Recently a mid-level manager was visiting our desk cluster when Paula jokingly said “[my name] thinks we’re annoying, she said she likes to come in on days we’re not here.””

    OP, you missed a chance! (Of course, hindsight is 20/20).

    This would have been the perfect opportunity to say something. When Paula made the joke, you should have responded, “No, I just like to have my work days free from having to listen to the intimate details of my coworkers’ sex lives and bodily functions all day long…”

    Well, maybe not. You’re new and it’s a pretty blunt reply, lol.

    Frankly though, I do think you should be a little bit blunt with them. The next time they ramp up, you should say something like, “Seriously, that’s so inappropriate for a workplace. People don’t want to listen to that type of conversation at work. If someone were to find that offensive and report you, or a manager were to overhear, you’d be in a lot of trouble. Plus, it’s distracting; I can hear you even with my headphones. So that means other people can hear you too.”

    This response makes it less like you’re some prudish stick in the mud (you’re not!) and more like you’re just trying to help keep them from trouble. This might deflect some of their immature comments from you.

    1. Sea Anemone*

      I agree that it was a missed opportunity, but I strongly disagree with your phrasing. It’s not that it’s blunt, it’s that it’s passive aggressive. A better response would be to directly and assertively name the behavior they are engaging in and ask them to stop.

      “I know you are joking, but since you bring it up, your conversations are pretty distracting, and sometimes they are more personal than I am comfortable hearing about in the office. Would you please try to take non-work conversations to the break area so I can concentrate? Thanks.”

      1. Web of Pies*

        Agree, but your phrasing is probably a little too vague for oblivious, new-to-the-workplace people though, I think OP will have to name what exactly is ‘too personal’ or not work appropriate, because they don’t actually know.

      2. SofiaDeo*

        What makes you think they are joking? I wouldn’t say that. Don’t give them an out, or next step might be “icky thing to hear” then turning to OP saying “just joking haha”.
        Work is not “buddies who say anything they want at home, whenever”. Work is “relative strangers in a public place, need to be civil/polite when there.”

    2. Scout*

      I’m surprised that people are saying OP missed an opportunity, when I would say that it’s the midlevel manager who missed an opportunity! Who hears an employee saying that another worker is arranging their schedule to avoid them, and doesn’t follow up on that? Not in the moment, but later. “OP, Maureen made a joke about you avoiding them. I’d like to know if there’s anything to that, anything about the environment that is making you avoid being in the office at certain times.”

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        yes this!!! terrible management fail! And then the manager should have had words with Paula and Maureen, and told OP to let her know if things improved or not.

  22. Critical Rolls*

    My experience with people like this is that it’s *very* important not to give them a reaction if they push back obnoxiously. If they respond to your clear request for professionalism with “jokes” or rudeness, they are expecting a reaction and you cannot give them anything except calm, reasonable restatement with no arguing. Make sure you’re documenting and be prepared to escalate. Good luck.

  23. Daisy-dog*

    Currently remembering a time that I was at a *restaurant* and the woman in the booth next to me was telling her birth story (every graphic detail!!!) to her friends. Some people are just clueless to how they affect other people in some situations. However, Paula and Maureen have noticed that you changed your schedule and that you use headphones to tune them out. They know what they are doing is bothering you, but haven’t taken the next leap to assume that what they are saying is inappropriate. They need an extra nudge.

    1. londonedit*

      Yeah, the thing is it sounds like they enjoy their graphic conversations and in their minds they’ve probably framed it as ‘we’re cool and fun and edgy, look at us with our swearing and our anything-goes conversation topics, OP is sooooooo boring, she doesn’t even want to sit with us’. They know they’re bothering the OP but they’re choosing to believe that’s OP’s problem for being a bore, not their problem.

    2. Salymander*

      Oh good lord people with their birth stories. When I was pregnant, I was accosted by several people a week, sometimes more, all wanting to tell me the most graphic, terrifying, gross things. Yes, childbirth is a natural thing. I just don’t want to hear about all the details while I’m at work, or eating, or really at all ever. One woman followed me through the grocery store, through the checkout line and halfway out to my car. She ignored all of my, “That is inappropriate,” and, “I don’t want to hear that.” She blew right past my, “Please go away.” I had to stand out in the parking lot, blocking her way with my cart and my arms outstretched and yelling, “NO! GO AWAY!”

      Telling these coworkers to stop will help them in the long term. Many employers are not too thrilled with their sort of behavior. They will probably be jerks about it in the moment, though, because people who are that obnoxious and lacking in reasonable boundaries rarely respond well to people telling them No. How tiresome and annoying for the OP that they should have to be the Reasonable Adult Behavior coach for these coworkers.

      1. Emotional Support Care’n*

        I hate that. When friends get pregnant, I tell them that if they have questions, they can ask me and I’m happy to answer based on my experiences. If they want advice, call me. Until then, I’m quiet support.

  24. SallyForth*

    When someone near you keeps putting earphones on, most people would take that as a social cue to tone it down.

    1. JustaTech*

      When I was in undergrad we had a generally socially-inept population so the school developed a few rules that were clearly stated in freshman orientation to ease in-dorm conflict. My favorite was “if you want to go to bed but your roommate has people over and you don’t want to just say “please leave”, start brushing your teeth. That is the universal sign of “it’s late, please leave”.”

      It worked because it was a non-verbal signal that everyone knew, so even folks who were generally non-confrontational could still get their needs met.

      I wish there were more of these clearly stated social conduct guidelines, like headphones=don’t want to talk.

  25. Butterfly Counter*

    Definitely say something about the topic of conversation not being appropriate for work.

    I’m more inclined to be sympathetic to these young women who have probably gotten a lot of their ideas about what to talk about during work from media. What is entertaining on The Office can get people fired in real life and people growing up on these shows might not know where the line is.

    (This from someone who, had I had friends who were game, would no doubt have talked about wildly inappropriate things over lunch Sex-and-the-City-style at volume. Luckily, I run with generally a more discrete crowd.)

    1. Observer*

      The thing is that there is a huge difference between “over lunch” and “all day at your desk in a shared space.” Not that the former is appropriate, but still that’s very easily chalked up to inexperience / cluelessness. The latter? Much harder. When it’s combined with actually knowing that at least one of your coworkers needs headphones around you and is changing their schedule to avoid you, that’s a whole other level of “NOPE”.

      1. Butterfly Counter*

        While it is a different level, I do think it’s possible they haven’t put in much thought to what exactly “office appropriate” means. Someone fresh out of college in their first jobs might mentally be putting themselves in the category of “adult” and not considering that there are different types of “adult conversation,” some of which is work appropriate, some of which is not.

        OP drawing a line might be helpful if that’s the case.

        If I’m giving too much benefit of the doubt to these oversharers, then at least OP has more ammunition when they go to their boss about the inappropriate conversation.

    2. anonymous73*

      That’s like blaming teenage violence on video games.

      It’s about having respect for others when you’re in mixed company. These 2 have zero respect for their colleagues, both based on the constant noise when chatting and the topics they’re chatting about. I’d bet money that others are bothered but are afraid to speak up.

      1. Butterfly Counter*

        All people know most violence is unacceptable and criminal.

        I can’t say for certain that I, personally, knew what was appropriate for office culture when I began working in an office or not. My first jobs were fast food (so much was inappropriate there: I was regularly called jailbait by my bosses) and hospital work (inappropriate in different ways).

        I guess I lucked out in that my first office job was in a VERY conservative office and am a quiet person to begin with. But I can see a very different situation where, if I was working with a close friend who both didn’t understand what was expected AND wanted to talk about private things, I’d have gone with it because, hey, we’re all adults here.

        I could be very wrong in wanting to cut these two slack before concluding they’re disrespectful rather than clueless. And I agree that they’re most likely bothering other people besides the OP. But if I had been in a similar situation due to ignorance rather than malice, I’d have appreciated the clear correction to keep the private talk out of the office.

  26. theletter*

    You could try to cut the difference by saying “hey if we can keep the inappropriate conversations for the happy hour, I’ll buy the first round.” It’s friendly enough while getting the message across.

    Back in the cubicle farm I always kept a swear jar at my desk – it was mostly there for loose change but I would tap it loudly if I heard something over the top.

    It made bad news easier to take – I’d stand up and rifle through my pockets for loose change before responding, to the glee of my coworkers.

  27. Colorado*

    OP I would definitely say something to them. Maybe I’m old and crotchety these days but I would shut it down using any of the scripts people have mentioned in the comments. I’d also give your boss a heads up as they may want to walk by their workspace unnoticed a few times. And of course, you can also show your boss this letter, or them!

  28. ByTheBay*

    I think it’s the wrong approach to try to take a breezy tone — they’ll probably take it as banter, or as a joke between the two of them (because yeah, then it’s all about how you’re so boring/stiff/prudish, which by extension is about how they’re so fun/edgy/wild. that’s a dynamic they would like). It’s worth a try asking them to sit down to coffee and making it a bit of a serious thing. Not an argument, more of a “I need to explain to you that this makes me feel uncomfortable. I’m trying hard to make a good impression here, because this job is important to me. I have trouble staying focused when you keep the conversation going so much of the day, and when a lot of it is not what feels work-appropriate to me.”

    Even people who like feeling like they’re edgy and silly will often settle down and look at it differently if you show them that you’re affected in a way that’s not just being uppity.

  29. HugeTractsofLand*

    It sounds like they’ve forgotten that others can *hear* them- a dumb problem to have, but a good framing tool. When you talk to them, you could say something like “Hey- I can hear you, the people on the other side of the wall can hear you. *I* don’t want to hear about your sex lives, because frankly why would I. I’m at work. There are literally rules against it. So please know that all of the things you’ve been saying ARE overheard, and don’t say stuff you wouldn’t say to a coworker’s face.” If they ask for examples of what not to talk about you can list off sex, religion, bodily functions, etc….they’ve really run the gamut!

    Good luck OP!

      1. Observer*

        Even in a one party state, this would be a problem as the OP is not party to the conversation.

        In any case, if you have decent HR this is NOT going to go well. Yes, if they are smart they will deal with the others. But you will also face repercussions. And if you have poor HR, this could be the end of your job, because they are more likely to go after you than your coworkers.

    1. DJ*

      Not only will that greatly antagonize them, it might be illegal depending on where OP is.

      I’d save that (assuming it is legal) for when all other options have been attempted.

    2. anonymous73*

      I wouldn’t recommend that. What I would do is keep a Word doc open and document each of the topics discussed as well as the time they spent on these conversations. Yes this will take time, but seeing the details on paper may push the manager to put a stop to it and not just brush it under the rug or assume the OP is blowing things out of proportion.

  30. Very anonymous*

    I must be getting cold hearted. Warn them once, then alert management. People that dim sometimes only learn after experiencing massive consequences.

  31. wolfmama*

    I would focus on the volume, not the content, because honestly if you can’t hear it there shouldn’t be a problem unless you’re somehow picking up slack for these people. Also, opinions about what’s appropriate for public settings, office settings, and restaurant settings vary wildly. I don’t agree with everything said above (for example, I think it’s actually really important for women to be able to share their birth stories in public if they so choose), but I do think most of what’s going on here would be fixed by not being able to hear the distracting comments.

    1. Observer*

      for example, I think it’s actually really important for women to be able to share their birth stories in public if they so choose),

      I hope you don’t do that in typical office settings. There is a time and a place for everything, and the office is not the time or place for birth stories – any more than it’s the place for details of your root canal or the time you wound up with gall stones etc. I’m not saying that it should be kept a deep dark secret – none of these things should be treated that way. But it’s not fare for an open office.

    2. Observer*

      Also, people don’t get to impose their stories (not just birth) on everyone and anyone. At work, you need to be a lot more constrained in what you dump on others because the people around you have less choices about what they are forced to listen to.

      1. wolfmama*

        No worries, I don’t even share my birth stories with my closest friends or family. I was thinking more about the comment above about someone talking at a restaurant about it and how I feel like even if I’m not into sharing, it’s a totally normal thing for people to talk about in public.

        As an aside, I think it’s interesting that you feel like the storytellers are imposing on people at the office. I have no problem telling people as they’re talking that hey, take that story elsewhere, I don’t want/need to hear about (fill-in-the-blank) and getting back to my work. It doesn’t seem like a big deal to me to course correct peers as things are happening.

        1. Observer*

          think it’s interesting that you feel like the storytellers are imposing on people at the office. I have no problem telling people as they’re talking that hey, take that story elsewhere, I don’t want/need to hear about (fill-in-the-blank) and getting back to my work.

          Well, that’s the thing. Clearly the OP *is* having a problem with this. They’ve tried changing their schedule and wearing headphones, and it’s still going on and they are being “teased” by their coworkers about it. I think that there comes a time when a person should know better than to do this in areas like this and make people ask them to stop it. But at least, if someone is doing that but STOP when when it’s clear that it’s a problem, that’s one thing. But here, there really is an imposition – they are talking about this despite knowing that the OP doesn’t like it and making a a big deal of the *OP* being “a grump.”

    3. Bibliothecarial*

      It’s important for folks to be able to share their birth stories, but it’s equally important for others to be able to opt out. These two need to be respectful of their captive audience. (which I think you were agreeing with :)

      1. JustaTech*

        Several years ago two coworkers started discussing their recent eye infections. Loudly enough for me to hear a couple of cubes away. They were pretty graphic, and eye infections tend to be disgusting so I was going to put on headphones to ignore them when I realized that they were having this conversation not at either of their desk, no, they were going into graphic detail while standing over my coworker in her cube.
        She IMs me “save me!”
        So I march over, say “excuse me” to the eye-guys and say to my coworker “I need you to review this audit right now” (not a complete lie) and then when the eye guys started talking louder we fled to a conference room.

        If that conference room had been full we would have been unable to leave and continue working, which was what took the conversation from “gross” to “incredibly rude”.

        (I once had someone show me pictures of their C-section at a wedding, but at least we were well hidden behind a plant.)

  32. Salymander*

    Oh good lord people with their birth stories. When I was pregnant, I was accosted by several people a week, sometimes more, all wanting to tell me the most graphic, terrifying, gross things. Yes, childbirth is a natural thing. I just don’t want to hear about all the details while I’m at work, or eating, or really at all ever. One woman followed me through the grocery store, through the checkout line and halfway out to my car. She ignored all of my, “That is inappropriate,” and, “I don’t want to hear that.” She blew right past my, “Please go away.” I had to stand out in the parking lot, blocking her way with my cart and my arms outstretched and yelling, “NO! GO AWAY!”

    Telling these coworkers to stop will help them in the long term. Many employers are not too thrilled with their sort of behavior. They will probably be jerks about it in the moment, though, because people who are that obnoxious and lacking in reasonable boundaries rarely respond well to people telling them No. How tiresome and annoying for the OP that they should have to be the Reasonable Adult Behavior coach for these coworkers.

      1. Salymander*

        I think you are right, unfortunately. The terrible two will just get snippy and mean and make comments about some people being easily offended. Then (I hope) a manager will give them a good talking to and then they just might learn to behave better at work.

    1. Vicky Austin*

      And this was a complete stranger? If this is the way she treats everyone, she’s going to get maced one of these days.

  33. Off My Lawn, You Must Get*

    It’s a small nuance but I’m curious – do you share a cubicle (like four desks corralled together) or a cubicle area (nearby but not direct line-of-sight/bump your chairs into one another)?
    I ask because I have two co-workers – I’ll call them The Daves – who share a space near mine. Although it creates the appearance of separate areas, the acoustics are such that I can hear them just as well as if I were sitting between them. BC (Before Covid), they got on a tear, egging each other on about something completely work-inappropriate. I finally said in a clear projective (but not yelling) voice, “You know I can hear you, right?” They stopped and it hasn’t been an issue since.

  34. Aarti*

    One of my greatest feelings as a young adult was when I stood up to an older, more senior colleague in the office. This woman would make the nastiest comments about other women in our organization, commenting how they slept their way up there, or how their knees must be sore, or all the dick-sucking – it was brutal. And coming from another woman made it so much worse. I let her know one day that this kind of conversation really bothered me and i would be stepping out of the conversation when she started it. And I did so. I would literally stand up and say, “I don’t feel comfortable with this, I am going to step out for a moment.” It only took a couple of times for her to then grumble and say “Well Aarti doesnt’ like me to say these things”. No I don’t! But at least she stopped.
    All this to say, you DO have a right to ask them to tone it down or stop entirely. It’s obnoxious.

  35. Small town problems*

    Expect it to get worse before it gets better. They are looking for attention, support, and are testing boundaries. If they needled you because you think they are annoying (which you do, and frankly which they are), I would expect some more needling and loud talking if they get spoken to by HR.

    It’s likely they might already know, or that their (your?) manager already knows. People know. Likely you won’t be the first one to complain either.

    I worked with similar people (except older) and my husband worked with a younger person who would talk incessantly about her hobbies, and one day brought a nerf gun to work and was shooting people over the half walls. One guy went over, grabbed it out her hands, and locked it in his desk. She didn’t stop being annoying (although she didn’t bring another nerf gun in).

    1. Small town problems*

      And I’m not saying don’t say something. I’m saying that you’ll probably have more support from people who know what’s going on and are trying to figure out this HR nightmare, and that their response will be to ramp up and then probably steeply decline.


    2. JustaTech*

      Sometimes you can get through to people with firm boundaries.
      I don’t like things being thrown at me; I’m not good at catching and I have a very strong startle reflex. So when we were given little plastic soccer balls for the World Cup one year I said “if you throw this at me it is mine and I will not give it back”. And that was it. And no one gave me a hard time about it because it’s a very reasonable request and to push back would have made them look like a child.

  36. lb*

    my second job out of college was at a well-known start up of the internet coupon variety, whose culture was…relaxed, to say the least. my first job had been a bit more corporate & buttoned-up, and i learned a lot about professional norms there. a lot of my coworkers were in their first job, though, and i think the casual-ness did them a big disservice, in that they didn’t learn the boundaries of what’s appropriate for work right from the jump. eventually Paula & Maureen will probably work somewhere else, and maybe the culture will be similar, but maybe it won’t be, and they should learn to err on the side of caution. even if they’re annoyed now, i think there’s a good chance they look back on their behavior now & say “yikes” someday.

  37. Manchmal*

    I’m dying to know where Paula and Maureen’s manager is in all of this. Beyond the inappropriate content, it sounds as though they spend a lot of time not working. They could be talking about pretty benign topics, and it would still be a lot of not working, and distractions for the OP just based on the amount of chatting.

    As for a strategy to address, what about informally checking in with the other coworkers who sit near them? If you see one at the water cooler, you might just say “Hey, I’ve noticed you sit near me, and I was just wondering how you deal with the amount of chatting that goes on during the day?” You might gain some insight into whether they’ve been spoken to before, which may help you approach them or your boss.

    But I think the best argument for shutting this down is that it is distracting to you as you’re trying to work. Your boss should be invested in creating an optimally productive work environment.

    1. irene adler*

      Yeah really. If this is affecting work product, manager(s) should be all over this.

      My poor sister had a “Chatty Cathy” who went ’round to most every cubicle, telling and retelling her stories. LOTS of too personal, cringy, not appropriate for work, information. Couldn’t drown her out.

      So sister learned quite a bit about Cathy’s family members- relationships, illnesses-detailed!, money issues, family drama and some very not discrete information-sharing (wonder if her adult kids ever learned their mother was sharing their personal crises situations with EVERYONE?). My sister was very aware of the potential of identity theft given the detailed info broadcast about (yes- it was that detailed-birthdates, credit card numbers even!). We used to joke that we ought to take out a credit card using the information shared and then present the card to Cathy. But would she take the hint?

      Apparently management couldn’t do much to shut down this Cathy. I don’t know why.

      1. JustaTech*

        I had a coworker (Betty) who loved to share really, really personal stuff about her family. Like, completely inappropriate stuff (detailed descriptions of assaults, just awful). At the time I felt completely steamrolled, and a lot of the stuff she shared was more normal family stuff (when you spend a lot of time in the lab there’s a lot of time for chatting while working), and now I wonder if it wasn’t some kind of weird power play, like “how can I push JustaTech’s boundaries today in a way that isn’t obvious?”

        Now I’m just glad I never shared anything really personal as Betty thought that everything, no matter how personal or painful, was gossip fodder.

  38. Crazy Cat Lady*

    Exactly the reason I am so lucky to be working from home, with no end in sight. I don’t have to deal with chatty co-workers and a toxic/uncomfortable work environment. Even if there is a “relaxed office environment” relating to language and other topics of conversation; it’s still considered harassment if it makes the OP uncomfortable (something like this was a scenario in the annual sexual harassment training that I just completed). I’ve been known to drop an “F” bomb or two at work (sometimes it just slips out), but I really try to control it in a professional office setting.

  39. TinaTurner*

    I’d go to HR and tell them I have audiotape of very inappropriate non-stop talking and it’s hard to concentrate even w/headphones. And they ignore you when you ask them to stop.
    Ask HR what you should do, and ask if they want to hear the tape.
    It may not be legal to tape but if you tantalize HR w/this “evidence” it may get their attention. If they won’t listen to it, but ask what kind of talk, keep it brief but graphic to get their attention. The less specific you are the better — make them wonder.
    Then let them reply.
    Ask them if they think someone, manager maybe?, should talk in and listen to them.
    Just talking all day in itself shows they’re not working enough and disturbing others too much. But the graphic details could also bother HR — what if these employees talk like that w/a client? Or are overheard by one?

      1. Observer*

        I’m pretty sure that recording a conversation to which you are not a party is illegal without consent in all states.

    1. Observer*

      It may not be legal to tape but if you tantalize HR w/this “evidence” it may get their attention.

      Oh, it will get their attention all right! But not in a good way. There is no way this ends well for anyone who pulls this kind of thing.

  40. TiredMama*

    This sucks. Been in that position and there were no good options. I also tried headphones first and was accused of thinking I was better than them. I finally said something and was then shut out, making my job more difficult, and loud talking shifted to loud whispering, which was somehow more annoying. Only way to fix it was to leave.

  41. Cheesehead*

    I still cringe when I remember something I did when I was young and in a relatively new job. I told an off-color “joke” that I’d heard from someone else. It kind of fell flat with the recipient and I regretted it immediately. But I was young and was trying to fit in with the new people, and I think I just went about it in the wrong way. I somehow thought that telling an off-color joke would make me appear fun or that I was ‘one of the gang’…something that sounds really stupid now. So I’m erring on the side of Paula and Maureen kind of being clueless like that, but they have each other to feed off of, so between the two of them, they’ve normalized what they’re doing.

    I wonder if it would help to gently point out to them that it’s likely that other coworkers won’t take them as seriously if they can’t curb the inappropriate topics at work. I mean, if they don’t know a basic thing like that some topics of conversation are not shared in public/at work, then it’s very likely that it will eventually hamper them professionally. It reflects on their overall judgement.

  42. Traffic Jam*

    I don’t think we’re able to tell from the outside whether they’re mean or immature and it doesn’t change the advice anyhow. However, I will say that if no one has said anything to them in the 1-2 years they’ve been there, it probably made their bad behavior only worse. I’d probably just follow Alison’s advice, but there is a part of me that wonders if you would be better off going to your manager, not so that person can handle it, but to get feedback from that person on whether they will support you in saying something to these two since no one else at the workplace seems to have done so and the OP is new. That would also help address OP’s concerns about these two badmouthing her by knowing that she has the support of her manager.

    1. New Jack Karyn*

      Regarding no one saying anything over the last 1-2 years: They may have been out of the office, working remotely. Then they could be in a Zoom meeting, and texting each other. Or IMing each other. No one would be the wiser.

  43. GreenDoor*

    One of my most blissful days at work was the day I realized I don’t actually care if people think I’m a prude, or a stick in the mud, or the office grump….if it gets me the peaceful environment we all deserve to work in.

  44. Curious*

    I am struck by how muted the reaction is to conduct that constitutes sexual and religious harassment, and concerns about retaliation if OP complains. While some comments indicate that Paula and Maureen’s conduct is a problem, many seem to think that it’s just a matter of immaturity — which sounds a lot like “girls will be girls.”
    I’m confident that the reactions would be much less understanding if Paul and Morris were talking loudly about their sexual encounters. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Paul or Morris should be given a pass for harassment. Rather, I am suggesting that these two adult women should be reported to HR, counsled in writing and — if they engage in retaliation — disciplined. Just as our hypothetical Paul and Morris should be.

    1. Observer*

      I think that you have a good point about talking to HR and pointing out that what they are saying possibly constitutes religion based harassment. And while it’s possibly true that Paul and Morris would not get a pass, I doubt that it would be useful to put it that way, as it is more likely to put HR on the defensive. On the other hand, putting it as “Hey, it’s worth doing a thought experiment and see how you react if you put a pair of guys here. I think it’s easier to see why this could be veering into sexual harassment.”

    2. Anon for this*

      Yes, as a religious minority and woman in a male-dominated field who’s been sexually harassed, I would absolutely feel that this was a hostile environment.

      In fact, i did work in a similar environment and had to leave without a job lined up because of the impact on my mental and physical health (stress flares up a chronic illness i have). I lost a lot of my savings leaving. It actually had a huge impact on my life.

      Please speak up or go to HR, OP! I’m rooting for you.

  45. LifeBeforeCorona*

    In our breakroom, one table was full of younger co-workers who were loud and inappropriate usually on a Monday after their weekend. A co-worker ended it by approaching them and quietly stating that they weren’t in high school anymore.

  46. Always Happy*

    So, I think your best bet is to go to HR. You need to let them know that you have tried several times to broach the subject but to no avail. Most companies have a no harassment policy, and what they are doing is considered harassment! I would also try to get a recording on your cell phone and bring that up, if they are indeed that loud. I used to work in a call center, where we had personal phones on our desks…you would be surprised at the conversations that could be heard from 2-3 rows over, and let me tell you , the microphones on those headsets were no joke!

  47. raida7*

    Yeah you have to say something.
    If you’re really really uncomfortable about it, you can go to HR and ask for a meeting because you want to understand what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour in the office.
    Then, armed with clear guidelines around this, you can talk to them, your manager, their manager starting with “I wanted to be sure it wasn’t just a personal preference and that this genuinely is a concern from the business’ perspective…”

    But if you are comfortable, have a police and honest conversation with them that lists out what isn’t a work environment conversation, and then get a manager involved anyway to be clear with them that you have specifically spoken to the ladies about their topics of conversation so the manager is aware that it has been of concern for at least one staff member and there isn’t to be any slagging off of you from the ladies as retaliation

  48. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    I’d mention it to their boss and I’d also point out that they have plenty of time to fit in some new projects… or that perhaps there’s only enough work for one of them, since they have time to be chatting a lot.

  49. Vicky Austin*

    I’m a Christian, and if anyone ever said anything along the lines of “ all organized religion is bad” in my hearing at work, you can bet they’d be hearing a mouthful from me.

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