my boss keeps asking if I’m OK

A reader writes:

My manager is overall a decent boss, and is reasonable and kind. However she has this one habit that has started to eat away at me. She constantly asks if I am okay. Even typing this, it seems so inane/nice, but it is a pattern that is wearing me down.

A couple examples: Once, she asked if I wanted to start a project that she thought of and I respectfully declined, because I told her I had too much on my plate and wanted to wait until I heard back from some clients to take on more things. I thought I was very respectful and maybe a little firm, but figured it was a normal interaction. Then five minutes later, she approached me and said in a concerned voice, “Are you okay?” and it made it seem as though because I disagreed with her on something that I was ill/unwell? Other times I will come into the office and maybe put on my headphones while I do independent work, because I need some quiet. She will then come over to me and ask if I’m okay.

The thing is, even if I am in a bad mood/not okay, I don’t really want to talk to her about it! I just want to do my job, and I am doing my job perfectly well, even on days when I am not super chatty. Should I just get over this or is there a way to bring this up to her?

That’s legitimately annoying! It gets tiring if someone keeps assigning emotions to you that you’re not feeling so you then have to spend energy assuring them that you’re fine and otherwise managing those wrong assumptions.

In your case, it’s particularly interesting that both your examples were your boss asking if you were okay after you set pretty normal and reasonable boundaries — saying your workload was already overwhelming and you didn’t have room for more at that exact moment, and wearing headphones so you could focus. “Are you okay?” in both those contexts sounds like she’s really saying, “I don’t like the boundary you’re setting, so is something wrong with you?”

In fairness, with the workload one, maybe there was more to it. Maybe she wasn’t really asking if you wanted to start that new project, but just assigning it to you and she was taken aback that you declined. In that case, though, it would be on her to clarify what she meant — and ideally also to dig into what was going on with your workload, if you and she had different assessments of its volume.

But since she’s also asking if you’re okay when you’re simply wearing headphones, I think it’s more likely that you dealing with someone who either:

(a) genuinely assumes you’re not okay when you do something that seems different from your usual (“Jane is normally so chatty during the day and also cheerfully takes on new projects; today she’s different so something must be wrong”)


(b) is using “are you okay?” as a passive-aggressive way of telling you, “You are doing something that I don’t like.”

Personally, I’d just name it the next time it happens: “You’ve been asking me a lot if I’m okay. Am I doing something that’s making you worry that I’m not?”

Sometimes just asking that can be enough for the other person to realize that repeatedly asking is coming across strangely — or at least is unwelcome — and it can get them to stop. But if it doesn’t, you could also say, “If there’s ever something wrong that you should know about, please know that I’ll tell you proactively. It would be easier on me if we can agree I’ll do that rather than you feeling you need to check.”

You say your boss is otherwise reasonable and kind, so hopefully naming the behavior that’s bugging you will get her to rein it in. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t — but it’s reasonable to give it a shot.

{ 191 comments… read them below }

  1. Resident Catholicville, U.S.A.*

    I’m really fascinated by headphones in the workplace as an okay norm thing because no where I’ve worked have headphones been okay. I use them sometimes if I’m listening to a webinar and my coworkers seem to think I’m purposely being unfriendly or ignoring them, which is interesting because I always pause the webinar (I listen to recordings, not live) and take the headphones off to answer questions, so literally no one is being ignored.

    I feel like this is a “read the room” situation- maybe headphones aren’t normal to that manager and/or that office?

    1. ColdClimes*

      This is funny, because last night I was randomly thinking about how the norm used to be playing that one local radio station that was ‘for work’ (and probably had “lite” in the title) and that’s gone completely. No one would EVER play the radio in an office at my job. Never, never.

      But headphones are extremely normal. My very first job out of Univeristy was dull dull dull but I could get it done if I listened to an audiobook. I was asked to stop wearing headphones and I flat out said “I really dislike the radio that is played and it keeps my brain entertained. My productivity will go down if I stop.” But the CEO thought it was a problem for people to wear headphones. That was the late 90s. The idea that headphones were a problem was definitely gone by 2005, when I came to my current employer and it’s only accelerated since the pandemic. Now it’s almost weird for us not to be wearing them.

      1. Random Bystander*

        Back in the office days, the person at the next desk played the radio all day long. What I think was the most annoying thing about the radio was that they pretty much played the *same* songs each hour, so you’d hear a given song eight times a day. Also annoying because everyone else in the office was using headphones (usually something like earbuds with one in/one out to make it easier to hear if someone needed your input).

          1. Elitist Semicolon*

            There are certain 80s songs that, when I hear them, give me a very strong mental image of my former dentist’s office.

        1. Reluctant Mezzo*

          At Christmas it was worse. I would get five versions of “Silver Bells’ in *one hour* on my little cube radio. That’s when I changed it over to the local head banger station, as long as I kept it low I was still ok.

        2. Burbonk*

          I had an office where they had a “DJ machine” but instead of being on random it always defaulted to Paul Oakenfold: Live from Australia. It has been over 20 years and I can still perfectly mimic the intro to this hours long mp3 of PAUL OAKENFOLD…LIVE! FROM AUSTRALIA!

      2. Bitte Meddler*

        I had a marketing job in 2011-2013 that required me to go visit potential clients. On my first day, the wife of the owner told me take my Bluetooth earpiece off because wearing it would make people think I wasn’t paying attention to them.

        Which…. is bananas. If I standing there having an interactive conversation with someone, it’s pretty damned obvious that I’m paying attention to them.

        I took the earpiece off when I was in the office but popped it back on as soon as I pulled out of the parking. Heckuva lot safer to take a hands-free phone call when driving than to hold the phone up to my ear.

        But all of the jobs I had before or since? Bluetooth earpieces and over-the-ears headsets are all totally fine

        1. Cicely*

          Eh, I could see where the optics could look questionable. I think the polite thing to do is just to take out the earpiece for the time it takes to interact with someone, especially a paying customer. I mean, you know you’re paying attention, but that might not be evident to anyone else.

        2. Cacofonix*

          Bluetooth and headphones are totally fine for independent work or a casual question, but it’s not a good look / professional to be wearing them if engaged in an involved business conversation or meeting. Especially with internal and external clients face-to-face. In my opinion, anyway. And as a customer, I’d choose a person who wasn’t wearing them every time if I could.

          Agree with the owners wife on this.

          1. MCMonkeyBean*

            Yeah, I am pro headphones in the office but would remove them if someone needed to talk to me! Doing otherwise feels rude.

          2. MigraineMonth*

            In my experience, wearing headphones/a bluetooth earpiece means “I’m listening to something else, please don’t bother me.” That really isn’t the message you want to send while having a conversation with someone in a professional capacity.

            Also, taking calls while driving is primarily dangerous because you’re distracted from driving, whether or not the call is hands-free.

          3. Good Wilhelmina Hunting*

            The staff in our local grocery stores often scan your groceries like an automaton because they’re too busy yacking to someone out the back on their Bluetooth headsets to be attentive to the customer.

        3. Sara*

          Wait – you wore them on sales calls? Nope. If a vendor came into my office wearing one I would cut the meeting short and would for sure not do business with them.

        4. JustaTech*

          I had an interesting experience recently with a new coworker who regularly wears the bone-conduction headphones (so they don’t go in your ears but just behind) – I was giving an overview of our company’s very specialized process to this person in-person, but she left her headset on.
          My boss later asked if this was a cochlear implant, and I said that it looked like a normal bone-conduction headset, and that the new person was so used to wearing it she probably forgot that she had it on. She was very engaged during my presentation, so I didn’t think that she was listening to something else, but I can see how someone might get that impression.

      3. LCH*

        Work in archives. Been wearing headphones since 2012. But only when I’m working on a solo project. I take them off to talk to people, in meetings, during any cowork, etc. Sometimes the headphones don’t play anything, just mute all the regular annoying office noises.

      4. Dek*

        My brother straight up quit a job because they stopped letting him wear headphones. It was a doggy daycare. He’d have a podcast on in one ear while being outside with the dogs. I can’t imagine just several hours of that and silence.

    2. CR*

      That’s so bizarre. I can’t think of a single office I’ve worked in where people aren’t allowed to use headphones.

      1. English Rose*

        Oh yes, loads of offices. Especially pre-Covid when everyone was working in person. If it was a team which needed to be on hand to answer questions from colleagues, headphones were a big no no. Seen as extremely antisocial but more than that – not being available to do a key part of the work.
        Even today in my present workplace, most of us only wear headphones if we’re actively on a Zoom call or training. Except for this one person who is really obviously out of step with our culture and it’s noticeable.

        1. Quill*

          Granted I entered the workforce in the middle 20teens but headphones are how you drown out the 50% ads radio station, the fax machine making a noise that you stop being able to hear on your 25th birthday, and the people in the next cube over talking about fantasy football when you’re on a deadline.

        2. anabanana*

          oh man, I would have quit from distraction. When I was in-person our offices were quite open (think more “library study carrell” than “cubicle”), and most of us had jobs that require a certain amount of collaboration and a certain amount of deep focus required for things like writing or reviewing technical documentation or doing engineering design. I was already hypervigilant enough about people moving in my peripheral vision, the big red over the ear noise canceling headphones were my “I am attempting to focus, please send me a message and we can follow up soon” flag.

      2. Ellen N.*

        Headphones can be frustrating. I used to have an assistant who wore them. To get her attention, I had to stand in front of her and wave my arms. She had a hair trigger startle reaction which meant that once I got her attention I had to wait for her to calm down.

        1. JustaTech*

          This is why I wear large over-the-ear headphones – so it’s really obvious that I can’t hear someone (rather than have them think I’m just ignoring them).
          I also have a strong startle reaction, but that can happen even when I’m not wearing headphones.

          I sit in an open office so I primarily use my headphones for meetings, but if I have a lot of data analysis I’ll put on some instrumental music to help me concentrate.

          For the startle: I remember someone here describing how they would ask a coworker if they wanted a cup of tea: just slowly extend a mug into the person’s line of sight.

        2. Michelle Smith*

          There were other ways to deal with your discomfort than frustration over the existence of noise cancelling headphones.

          I wore them at work for years because I was assigned a desk in an office with two exceptionally noisy human beings. I was the same as your assistant – because the headphones worked so well at blocking out noise, just saying my name would not let me know you were talking to me and sudden, wild gesticulations in my general direction would cause me to be startled. I solved it by putting up a sign that reminded people that I had noise-canceling headphones on and that they should get my attention by walking into my line of sight. That worked. People would just walk in front of my computer and stand there and it would only take me a second or two to focus on them. No waving motions needed.

          Other solutions could have been putting me in a less noisy part of the office or telling my coworkers to not take phone calls at a volume that suggested they were at Yankee Stadium during game time or any number of other solutions besides my bosses or coworkers just getting frustrated.

        3. Quill*

          Having such a high startle response could be a big part of why she had the headphones.

          Personally, if I hear anybody creeping around behind me I’m either losing several minutes to trying to move to where they won’t be behind me, or not putting out my best work because there is too much going on around me. In addition to the social signal of “do not bother me on a whim” headphones prevent me from jumping directly into the popcorn ceiling every time someone slams a door.

      3. General von Klinkerhoffen*

        I have. I’m ex-BigLaw.

        Although half the cube farm would be wearing headphones all day, those would be playing dictation for their audio typing. It was strongly frowned upon for anyone else to be listening to anything.

        I got special permission to wear headphones while working independently in a conference room on high volume procedural work, but when I was at my desk it wasn’t allowed.

      4. Burbonk*


        But also if my desk phone rang I’d probably be so surprised I’d throw it across my cubicle in a panic.

    3. Miss Chanandler Bong*

      I used to work in an office with an open floor plan. I sat right next to this person who was LOUD. He would get on the phone and talk for hours. It was business-related, but the man had no idea how to use his indoor voice. My boss and I used headphones out of self preservation. My boss had the cube across from me and would IM me if he was coming to talk to me because he knew I had headphones in and he’d risk startling me. And he absolutely knew the reason why, lol.

    4. Sunny*

      I can understand that headphones may not be acceptable in some offices, but I don’t necessarily see where the leap from that to “something is wrong with headphone-wearing person and I should make sure they’re alright” occurs.

    5. Curiouser and Curiouser*

      This is wild to me, as headphones have very much been the norm everywhere I’ve worked. I feel like they’re almost a necessity in open floor plans. That being said, if the manager has an issue with the headphones, I also feel like it’s their responsibility to name that. “Are you okay?” seems almost passive aggressive when you really mean “why are you wearing headphones?”

      1. starsaphire*

        I agree; I think that the advent of headphones being normal is more or less concurrent with the advent of oversized cube farms and/or open floor plans.

        It would have been really weird to wear them at the job I had in the 90s.

        It would be really weird to *not* wear them today, what with web-based trainings, online meetings, Teams calls, and so on.

    6. Annony*

      I agree that it varies by workplace. Where I work, it is seen similar to a closed door. We use headphones for meetings or when we need to focus on something, but it does slow down the workflow because people will hesitate to approach someone with headphones on. Essentially, it is a big “do not disturb” sign.

      1. JustaTech*

        I could see if someone only ever put on their headphones after having a tense conversation that a manager might take wearing headphones to be the same as pointedly closing your office door – a sign that the person does not want to talk to anyone right now.

        But there’s a huge difference in body language between “headphones to concentrate” and “headphones because I do not want to deal with you right now” – just like the many emotions that can be conveyed in the way one closes a door.

      2. Michelle Smith*

        See, I hate this too. Why does my door being closed so I am less distracted mean don’t approach me? If I can’t be disturbed, I’ll put up a literal sign that says “Do not disturb except emergencies – available again at X time.” This discussion is really reminding me how office cultures can be very difficult to navigate if you have any degree of neurodivergence. I am not looking forward to our return to office mandate finally being enforced.

        1. DisgruntledPelican*

          Because a lot of people (especially on this site) think of being approached and interrupted for something as the biggest distraction.

          1. Becky B*

            My husband gets interrupted all the time when he is at work bc he is the “problem solving wizard” when no one else can do it; and yet he gets work done so much better when he is in “flow”. As his wife, I try to limit phone calls to true need (are you going to get the kids, etc.) and not arbitrary interruptions.

    7. Goody*

      Like OP, I primarily use headphones when I need to actively block out the environment and hyperfocus on a project. And I specifically have a pair larger over-ear pads to act as a visual alert to my coworkers that I need isolation without interruption.

      Sometimes I have music playing in them, but mostly they’re just to block me out.

    8. Cyndi*

      Meanwhile this would be a hard dealbreaker for me, because I have sensory issues and it’s important to me to block out all conversation around me, or as close to it as physically possible for as much of the time as possible. I’ve worked in places that limit what devices we can listen to, but never ones that banned headphones themselves, because I would never apply to those jobs to begin with.

      I’m always confused by headphones that advertise that they let you still hear your surroundings, like that’s a perk–doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

      1. Random Bystander*

        I would think those would be ideal for someone who wants to listen to music/podcasts while outside on a walk/run–because there are dangers in not being able to hear what’s going on in your surroundings (along with the annoyance that people cause when they decide to walk in the middle of the street, bobbing all over so you can’t pass them and they have headphones on so they’re unaware that you’re honking at them to get out of the road and onto the sidewalk where pedestrians belong).

        1. Dina*

          Also good for when you want to order your lunch/coffee/whatever and don’t want to take your earbuds out. My noise cancelling earbuds have a passthru mode you can activate easily on the earbuds and I use it for that all the time :)

        2. JustaTech*

          Yeah, it’s long been recommended to women especially in the running community to never fully block your hearing while running for your safety. Mostly cars, but also animals and people.

      2. Lizcase*

        I hate having all the noises blocked off. I often walk around my house with only one ear bud I’m so I can hear what’s going on around me. It’s weird, I know. I also couldn’t study without noise around me. I think it’s a side effect of growing up with 5 siblings in a small old house.
        Also, yes, hearing surroundings is very helpful when there are people and cars and cycles.

        1. Delightful Daisy*

          I listen almost exclusively with just one ear bud unless I’m on a really noisy plane. I never attributed it to growing up in a small house with siblings but it makes a lot of sense. I very seldom like complete quiet and I don’t like sleeping with the door closed at all.

    9. Empress Ki*

      That’s strange to me. Not only we have headphones (provided by the employer) but we are supposed to use them when we make phone calls or are on Ms Teams meetings. The office would get too noisy otherwise !

    10. Also-ADHD*

      I work remotely now, but I’m in a semi-technical field and I can’t imagine being in any kind of open plan/cube and not able to wear headphones when doing independent work. I didn’t wear them in customer facing work or when I used to teach, but I can’t imagine people expecting my attention be on the room when I’m supposed to be doing heads down work.

    11. Not Totally Subclinical*

      I use earbuds all the time so that my coworkers don’t have to hear my music. But I also have an office with a door, and if the door’s open that means I’m open to non-emergency interruptions. I’ll also sometimes use only one earbud to make it extra clear that I’m open to interruption.

    12. Garden Gnome*

      Many people in my office wear headphones or Air pods because the owner’s secretary and paralegal are so incredibly loud, you have to drown them out somehow and not everyone has the luxury of a door. They literally yell to one another when they’re just feet away. It’s beyond annoying.

        1. Garden Gnome*

          They hear just fine. They just don’t care and seem to be completely unaware that other people work around them. The worst part is management won’t do anything about it because they work for the owner.

    13. allathian*

      I use my headphones at the office when I’m in a Teams meeting, but not otherwise. Many of my coworkers also wear them when they’re in deep focus mode, although most people WFH on those days (we have a very liberal WFH policy). In fact, we’re explicitly required to use headphones in Teams meetings at the office, at least if we’re at our desks. The speaker is fine if we book one of the small “phone booths” or attend a hybrid meeting from a meeting room.

    14. Cat Tree*

      How can you possibly focus on thought-intensive work without drowning out all the background noise? Or do you work somewhere magical where every coworker is polite about making noise? Without my headphones I could never get anything done with the constant interruption of 12 different phone alert sounds going off at random times, alert noises from other people’s computers who don’t mute them, and the random whistling and tuneless singing that goes on all day.

      1. Resident Catholicville, U.S.A.*

        This whole thread has been fascinating for multiple reasons:

        1) Like I said, it’d have been wildly against norms to have headphones on during work. It would have been considered really rude and as if we wouldn’t want to be disturbed. I had an extremely obnoxious coworker at my last job and I had to ask for permission to wear headphones while we shared an open office (with three other people) because she was so disruptive- but I got so many weird looks and people confused if I was able to be interrupted that it was definitely something I only resorted to if she was being truly awful. And even then, I don’t know how that would have played out long term since Covid happened and we started working from home and she was one of the first to get furloughed.

        2) I’ve always had office jobs that involved a lot of detail oriented work, but was just expected to deal with all the office noises. That loud copier that I sit next to? Suck it up. The other coworker who has hour long, non-work conversations with corporate office? That’s par for the course. EVERYONE saying hello to everyone every time they come into the office for postage/coffee/head to the bathroom/etc and being expected to reply back every time, even if you’re in the middle of something? Yeah, you have to do that.

        3) If we’re in the office doing work but not paying attention to each other because we have headphones on to drown everyone out…why are we in the office? I will admit that one job, it was imperative that I listen to my coworkers conversations (truck brokerage) and I was on the phone 95% of my day, so headphones were just a no go, but the other jobs? I could have done those remotely if need be.

        To be clear- I think wearing headphones in offices would be fine if that were the norm and no one needed to be interrupted on a regular basis, but that doesn’t seem to be the way the places I’ve worked operate. Maybe it’s my area- I can’t think of any business I’ve walked into, either interviewing and seeing non-interviewers or as a member of the public (bank, doctor office, etc) and seeing non-public facing employees with headphones on.

        1. Willow Pillow*

          I work with confidential data that can’t leave the office and (at this point) is hard-copy only. I’m also sensitive to all of those sounds you mention, to the extent that I need formal disability accommodations.

          1) Norms change. As has been mentioned upthread, open-concept offices are relatively new and they block out much less of those ambient noises.

          2) Your ability to “suck it up” doesn’t mean that everyone else can or should do so. This kind of anti-progress hurts people in minority groups.

          3) Wearing headphones at the office doesn’t automatically mean they’re on 100%. Some of us like interacting with coworkers and also need to minimize distractions in order to focus. I can even say hi to people while I’m wearing headphones!

          For me (and many others), this is a matter of human rights. What makes any of your points more important than that?

        2. Cyndi*

          It sounds to me like you have a history of working in environments where people feel very entitled to their coworkers’ time and attention no matter what else someone might need to be doing, and even aside from my sensory issues that too would be a hard dealbreaker for me.

      2. DisgruntledPelican*

        Distractions come in many forms. Background noise doesn’t bother me at all. Silence does. I can focus for hours while coworkers talk and laugh at the desk next to me. Put on a podcast, however, and I can neither focus enough to do my work nor take in anything said on the podcast.

    15. Michelle Smith*

      I would quit anyplace that didn’t allow me to wear headphones but required me to be in a space that wasn’t completely private. Not just because of DEI reasons (I need them to be able to concentrate and hear properly on a phone call and put them on for that even when I’m at home, alone), but because it’s a level of micromanagement I wouldn’t be able to tolerate. I’m not in a kitchen or a lab or somewhere where people need to be able to communicate with me constantly, so if I need to listen to music or a webinar or whatever I want, I need to be able to do that. 8-10 hours a day of absolute silence except for coworker conversations in the background would make me climb the walls after about 3 days.

  2. Ellis Bell*

    I wouldn’t be able to field a question about being okay “in a concerned voice”, without asking the person “why do you ask?” I would probably do so in a really surprised/concerned tone of I thought I seemed equanimous. If OP has asked why, I’m really curious what the response was.

    1. Consonance*

      I think this is actually a great way of handling it. Instead of just answering and reassuring, it could turn up useful information or help her to see that it’s not a needed question. It’s possible that OP is giving off “not okay” vibes sometimes (I know I do… my face just looks angrier than I feel), but it’s also a gentle push back. My gut sense is that this is a person who is deeply uncomfortable and constantly looks for emotional reassurance. It’s not a great thing to do in any situation, but definitely not okay at work and with employees. OP shouldn’t be shouldering her insecurities. (Yes, I’m imagining a lot, but I’ve come across enough people with this MO.)

      1. Peche*

        Re: Emotional reassurance. I came here to says this. She wasn’t my boss (that adds an extra level of weirdness), but a coworker who also happened to be extremely chatty. We were in an isolated area from the rest of the team, and not in line of sight of each other. If I stopped talking so I could concentrate, I got “Are you OK?” This person was extremely hypervigilant to subtle shifts of mood but my quietness and RBF caused her to interpret that as a mood change and not a focus change. It was exhausting. And if for some reason I wasn’t OK, I wouldn’t tell her anyway, because her hypervigilance had to do with making sure I wasn’t about to become dangerous, vs. her so-called “empathy”.

    2. Turquoisecow*

      Yeah I’d just say something like “I’m fine, why?” and if it happened more than once or maybe twice with no obvious reason I’d definitely add in a “you keep asking me that when I’m fine, what is it I’m doing that’s so concerning?” I tend to be the sort of person who doesn’t smile a lot so sometimes people will think that because I’m not smiling I am miserable, but a coworker I see every day usually would figure that out.

    3. MsM*

      I find “are you okay?” is also a useful approach. A surprising amount of the time, it turns out people are projecting because they’re anxious or down about something.

      1. Mockingjay*

        I don’t like “are you okay,” because there are too many possible root causes, including personal issues that you may not want to divulge to a manager.

        I worked with a similar manager at ExToxicJob, who spent an inordinate amount of time trying to interpret my every reaction or lack of same. It’s exhausting. The simplest actions were questioned. One day I closed my office door (across from the busy break room) to focus on completing a priority report that she directed me to do. Next thing I know, she’s opening the door and dragging another manager in demanding to know why I had the door closed. Umm, so I can focus on this Very Important Report that you wanted done?

        No real advice for OP, other than to be very direct in all communications. Perhaps next time, try Alison’s prioritization script: “I can take on New Project, but only if I drop something else. Which do you want me to do?” OP, you have my sympathy.

    4. Person from the Resume*

      This was my thought. I’m not sure it would be my go-to response when the first question was asked, but after a few times I would be saying “Yes, I’m good/great/fine. Why do you ask?” to have the boss tell me what I am doing that is causing her to ask.

    5. Mayba*

      When I’m asked that and not sure why my default is, “What do you mean?” Even if you aren’t “okay” it’s a lot easier to address when you know exactly what they’re concerned about. It also prevents you from feeling pressured to disclose something or lie when they just heard you sighing because you were struggling to reach something under your desk.

    6. Happily Retired*

      “Of course I am! Why do you ask?”

      After a few more rounds:

      “Of course I am! Why on Earth do you ask?”

    7. Laura*

      yeah, my kneejerk response to that is “yeah….?” (in a confused tone of voice) and then “why do you ask?”

    8. Enai*

      In Germany, one of the polite answers to “Are you okay?” or similar is a cheery “Why, thank you! Yourself?” which neatly turns the topic back to the asker. If the question was genuine, the asker will usually reply something like “Oh, I’m fine, but you (did something unusual / look down / whatever) and I wanted to check in”. If the question was _not_ genuine, it frequently leads to total discombobulation. Tested for you with one of the obnoxious “take off your respirator, Covid us over” – types who thought he was clever.

    9. tinaturner*

      Sometimes we don’t know how we come across and you may be projecting that you’re LESS OK than you think you do. It’s healthy to ask her about it, ask if she thinks you’re not looking “OK.”
      If you saw a video of yourself you might think, I don’t look that OK.

  3. Stuart Foote*

    Sadly, setting boundaries and saying your workload is overwhelming is NOT normal in America. In all the jobs I’ve had, saying that would be extremely unusual and odd.

    Obviously this isn’t healthy (like, really not healthy), but I think it’s the reality in many more jobs than job.

    1. RussianInTexas*

      Yes, I’ve never worked in an environment when you could say that workload is too high without repercussions. There only possible way to say no would be if it was physically impossible to do, like mail in a contract while you are on vacation.

      1. Ellie*

        I say no in a slightly different way. As in, “I’m swamped with X at the moment. Do you want me to keep going or focus on Y?” Sometimes I get a clear priority and sometimes I get a “Just do your best with it” but I do my best to set expectations very low if I have too juggle too many things at once.

        I agree its not a great culture, but its normal in my industry. If I got a response like the one OP gave, I would likely check in and make sure everything was OK too (and it would be genuine – I wouldn’t bring it up again if they said everything was fine). The headphones one is ridiculous though.

        1. Enai*

          Yes, if there’s a “no headphones” rule, manager ought to just say so. Dancing around it is not likely to lead to good results.

      1. Insert Clever Name Here*

        Yeah, I’ve said no at various times with various bosses — I’m a high performing employee who has had several promotions and been given lots of interesting opportunities. America is a huge place with a mind blowingly diverse number of industries and people managing so to be like “you can’t say no at jobs in America” is a pretty specific oversimplification.

  4. H.Regalis*

    I apparently have resting concerned face, so I’ve had a couple jobs where I got asked this a lot, and one of my partners will also ask on occasion. It does get a bit annoying when people don’t take yes for an answer, like, no, I wasn’t mad at you, but I am now that you’ve spent twenty minutes insisting that I must be upset.

    1. librarianmom*

      This is me too! Made even worse as I got older and my wrinkles settled into what appears to be a frowning face. It took me a while to figure out why it was happening.

      1. H.Regalis*

        I feel a lot of empathy for pugs now XD

        Some of my friends had a pug-Boston Terrier mix, and in every photo he always looked like he was EXTREMELY WORRIED about something, but that’s how his face was.

        1. Avery*

          I’ve got a beagle/Jack Russell terrier mix (that’s our best guess anyway, she’s a rescue mutt and even a dog DNA test couldn’t narrow it down much) who always looks sad. I’m never quite sure if it’s just her face, actually her being sad, her purposely looking sad to manipulate us (I wouldn’t put it past her, she’s smart and bossy), or some combination of the three.
          And a family friend has a cat who always looks concerned/anxious. And did have a bit of the personality to go with it, but not literally feeling that way 100% of the time like you’d expect from her face.

    2. EtTuBananas*

      It took like a full year of living together for my partner to learn what my “I’m concentrating” face looks like, since I’m normally I’m a very smiley person and my concentration face is close to a frown.

    3. callmeheavenly*

      I am frequently asked if I’m okay by completely random people: convenience store cashiers, drive-through employees, hotel desk clerks. “Resting crisis face” must for real be A Thing.

      1. Peche*

        The grocery store checker did this the other day, but I realized she’s one of those emotional fixer types. Like even if it wasn’t OK, the fact that I look like I’m scowling as I paw through my grocery basket is on me. I need to speak up and say: “Oh dear, I seem to have misplaced my kippers!” I don’t need my emotions managed by strangers. I’ve taken to saying: “I’m OK. This is just how my face looks. Thanks!”

        1. MigraineMonth*

          I’m an emotional fixer type, but I wouldn’t bother a stranger unless they were actually crying, and even then only to ask if I could help. People are allowed to have RBF or a shitty day.

    4. Warrior Princess Xena*

      As a child, I’d have a habit that if I was very deeply concentrating on something, I would hold my breath more. I didn’t realize this until my mom started asking if I was ok on a regular basis. Turns out, when I did this, it sounded like I was sighing all the time. I explained to her that no, I wasn’t sad or angry, just focusing. I don’t think I do it as much any more now!

    5. K8*

      I really struggle coping with the question “are you ok?” It triggers an physiological response even if I am totally fine and I start getting teary. It is EXTREMELY annoying. Like… I could look upset because I just had an allergy attack but if someone gives me a concerned “Are you ok” I am at risk for straight up crying.

      1. LabSnep*

        For me it’s either that or it triggers the fight part of fight or flight, which then triggers tears because I am ashamed for being triggered by a question (but I have had those three words weaponized against me before. I’m getting better, but it still makes me twitch)

  5. Heidi*

    I once read an article somewhere where an “expert” recommended asking “Are you okay?” when people are being rude (as opposed to being rude back). It was a fluff article about emotional intelligence or something. You call attention to the rudeness but avoid being rude by phrasing it as concern. Maybe this is a tactic the boss is using in a misguided way.

    1. Jaydee*

      That seems somewhere between passive-aggressive and just so passive it will go completely over the head of the rude person. Like, I wouldn’t ever think that someone asking me if I’m okay was intended to signal “you’re being rude right now so maybe stop being rude.”

      So, probably about right for a fluff article about emotional intelligence but not actually *good* advice.

      1. Irish Teacher.*

        To be fair, I assume it is intended as a response for when somebody is being deliberately rude. I imagine if somebody were trying to insult somebody or put them down, getting “are you okay?” as a response might disconcert them somewhat.

        Like “you know, you really are too old to get away with those pants.”
        “Are you okay?”

        I still don’t think it’s a particular good response though and certainly if that is what the boss is trying to do here, I do think that is both passive-aggressive (in the actual sense of trying to be pretty aggressive and accusatory while maintaining plausible deniability) and so passive that it’s unlikely to be understood. I can’t see many people getting “I think it’s rude to wear headphones” from “are you okay?”

    2. Orv*

      This is often deployed sarcastically on the Internet, when someone is expressing really strong feelings about a topic.

    3. Budgie Buddy*

      Like “Can I help you?” meaning “You’re not supposed to be here. Get out.” This is so yucky. It’s another reason to not believe people when they say normal helpful things and immediately flip into red alert and start self-scrutinizing for any possible reason why that person is secretly mad and means the opposite of what they’re saying.

    4. Joyce*

      Lol, I took this approach when a neighbor had a full on insane meltdown at me in our shared driveway (learned later from our landlord she had a history of totally manipulative breakdowns, fun! Took him ages to get enough evidence to evict her. Fire hazards, mail stealing, abusing other tenants, whoo.)

      She wanted to pick a fight with me, and was extremely unhappy with my response being deep concern for her well-being because obviously, no healthy person. I think I literally asked “are you okay”.

      It got me out of the interaction without escalating it on my side, but it sure didn’t calm her down!!

  6. Free Meerkats*

    Maybe she wasn’t really asking if you wanted to start that new project, but just assigning it to you

    This one would be on the boss. If you’re assigning something, assign it; don’t ask.

    1. Saturday*

      I don’t know… my bosses have always said, “Hey, can you update this report/prepare this presentation/whatever,” and there’s never been any confusion. It’s clear that it’s expected unless some extenuating circumstances make it impossible.

      The LW says they were “maybe a little firm” when declining, so I’m thinking that may have been an issue. It might still have been okay to bring up the other demands on their time and have a discussion about priorities, etc.

      1. Peanut Hamper*

        I think it’s a matter of scale.

        “Can you do this thing which takes five minutes” is probably just being polite.

        “Can you do this thing which may take weeks or months and eat up a lot of bandwidth” is more of an inquiry.

        It really depends on your boss and how they communicate, but this is the pattern I’ve always encountered.

        1. Cmdrshprd*

          This might be a YMMV type situation, and/or I’ve been lucky to have good supervisors, but even in a

          ““Can you do this thing which takes five minutes” is probably just being polite.”

          situation, they are telling me to do X task, unless I have a very specific/good reason to not be able to do it. They are assigning it, but open to pushback if I have a priority one deadline due in 2 hours etc….

          That might have been a miscommunication, but it was on the Boss to follow up if they were concerned about the workload.

          I think I’ve been in jobs where I built up the reputation to usually/almost always taking on other tasks, so if I said no it could be seen as a concern, overworked, personal issues etc….

          1. Cedrus Libani*

            In a healthy environment, “Can you…” opens the door to “Yes, but I don’t think you want me to do that, because…”

            If it’s going to be a big effort, it’s worth arguing that other tasks should take priority, or that you’re not the ideal candidate for the work. But for the minor things, it’s faster to get it over with rather than argue. You’d have to believe that the five-minute task actively should not be done, and that’s not something that happens often.

      2. WantonSeedStitch*

        Yeah, but I’ve also said to my own reports, “hey, this project has come across my desk. I was thinking you might like to take point on it because of your skills in XYZ. How would you feel about that?” In this case, I’m trying to give the person an opportunity to do something a bit higher profile than usual, or at least a chance to do something that’s a feather in their cap. But if they don’t want it or don’t have the time for it, I’m fine with assigning it to someone else. If someone responded to me with a firm “there’s no way I have time to take that on!” I would be completely understanding. If the person seemed stressed about their high workload, I would be less likely to ask “are you OK?” and more likely to ask, “do you need something taken off your plate, or do you need to renegotiate some deadlines?”

    2. Delta Delta*

      This. I had a boss who would always preface a task with, “do you wanna…” and then assign it. I caught on quickly this was her way of softening a request, when all she needed to do was to say “please ….” and I’d do what was asked. She would also assign tasks she didn’t want to do. One day she said, “do you wanna call John Martin about the XYZ issue?” so I did, and John Martin yelled at me because boss had been ducking his calls and he needed to talk to her. So, the next time she asked, “do you wanna…” I simply said no. She had nowhere to go with that.

    3. JSPA*

      “Shall we get to work on X” or “ok, ready to start Y?” are phatic expressions for, “now it is time to start X/Y.”

      Yes, it would be less open to confusion to say, every time, “your next assignment, starting now, is X.” But outside of mission impossible, people don’t have one set verbal formula for assigning tasks.

      I find it quite possible that the LW (unintentionally!) Bartleby-ed their boss, and the boss was understandably non-plussed.

    4. Irish Teacher.*

      I think this is very much cultural. In some groups, “hey, would you mind doing X?” or “how about doing X?” or even “I thought you might like to do X,” from your boss clearly means “do X.” In others, it means literally what it says.

      But yeah, even then, the boss should have clarified or had a discussion when the LW said they were too busy.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        I think I gave up on fixing my relationship with one of my past managers when she asked me “Can you do X?” and then got annoyed when I tried to do X.

        Apparently it was a non-rhetorical question about my capabilities and I shouldn’t have taken it as assigning me the task.

    5. Random Dice*

      That doesn’t line up with all of the regions (and the military) in which asking IS an order.

      Israeli, Dutch, and German people people use words to say what they think… but for the rest of the world, subtext and hinting is a major way of communicating. Which sucks for neurospicy folks.

      I would be pretty taken aback if my direct report just flat-out said no to a project I asked [directed] them to do. I’d take the next step and do the work of reassigning priorities, but I’d definitely have “uh actually I’m not your buddy and that wasn’t actually a suggestion” flash across my brain before I chose different words to come out of my mouth.

      1. RussianInTexas*

        I can’t imagine telling my boss “I would rather not do the X project”, because it’s clear to me this wasn’t an ask. This was tell.

      2. Katie Impact*

        Another reason I’m glad to be a contractor: if someone asks me to do something I haven’t already agreed to do, they’re genuinely *asking*, and the next step is to negotiate how much I’m getting paid before I agree to do it. I wouldn’t cope well in a standard employment environment where the assumption is that you’ll be up to do whatever your boss happens to want you to do at any given moment.

    6. Cinn*

      “If you’re assigning something, assign it; don’t ask.”

      This so much this! My boss is the type to ask – or say “we” -about tasks. To the point where half the time it’s not clear if it was an observation or a “please do this”. My boss is also someone who will ask “how are you” right after hi in any/every conversation to the point where you can be asked multiple times a day. Sometimes in the same conversation. I know it’s about being friendly, but honestly with how often it is it drives me up the wall.

      Is that just me? Am I the only one who gets irked by these things that feel like they should be inconsequential?

  7. I'm just here for the cats!*

    I’m wondering if the boss is reading more into things. Like if with the headphones, maybe others in the past have used that as a way of ignoring the boss and showing they were upset. And maybe the LW spoke more forcefully then they meant or the boss took it the wrong way. I think the LW should just talk with her and name what shes seeing and ask for feedback.

    1. many bells down*

      Honest, yeah, my first thought was “boss is like me and thinks everyone’s upset with them all the time”

    2. ThatOtherClare*

      This could be it. If the boss has had a past where other people’s emotions were dangerous to her, she might subconsciously be on hyper-alert trying to make sure everyone is happy (or at least neutral) all the time. It’s not uncommon, and without therapy she wouldn’t even know she’s doing it, or that it’s not normal.

      How does that help the letter writer? What could they even do about that if it were to be true? Unfortunately, nothing. But knowledge is power, and knowing that “It’s not me” can change a person’s reactions to something like this. They might decide to just accept it and ignore it as an annoying quirk, or they might decide to aim for promotion or transfer more quickly than they might otherwise.

      If it is this, good luck to the letter writer. It might sound nice to be around someone who wants you to be happy all the time, but when it’s pathological it becomes very draining very quickly.

  8. New Senior Mgr*

    I would be annoyed, too. You wrote that she’s a nice boss. Therefore, I’m going to assume she’s not passing along the narrative of “it’s possible OP’s not okay in this moment.”

  9. Meghan*

    My parents did this constantly. It got to the point where they were asking me 3-10 times a day when all I was doing was just existing normally, going about my schedule and responsibilities. I had to tell them they are never ever allowed to ask me that question again because of how infuriated it made me hearing the same phrase all day everyday. I think Alison’s assessment that it is passive aggression is right on the money. People in a position of authority use it as a way to tell you that you are not fitting their ideals of what your behavior should be, and yes, to stomp al over your boundaries.

    1. ThatOtherClare*

      The worst thing about someone poking at you for reassurance all the time going “Are you mad? Are you sure? You’re positive you’re not mad?” is that it turns into a horrible feedback loop of “Well, I wasn’t, but I AM NOW!”. Then the person becomes convinced that you’re secretly mad and repressing things all the time and that there’s no way to tell, their anxiety spikes any time you’re not singing and dancing with obvious glee, and everyone suffers.

      1. JustaTech*

        Oh my goodness, yes! I had a coworker who would do this to me: specifically she would text me when she knew I was cooking dinner and therefore would not have my hands free/dry to get out my phone and answer her texts, so by the time I got to her texts she had gone from “hi!” to “why are you ignoring me?” (in the space of like 10 minutes) to “what did I do to upset you?”

        Like, I’m not ignoring you, I’m not upset, I’m cooking and I’m not going to touch my phone with raw chicken on my hands, chill!

  10. cityMouse*

    I once had a coworker come up to me with a concerned look on his face, and ask, “Are you ok? You’re grumpier than usual.” I said, “I actually wasn’t, but now I sure am!” This happened after I set what I thought was a polite, professional boundary – I had to do something, and he was repeatedly physically in my way each time, so I asked him if he could work around what I needed to do. Maybe I was grumpy, I don’t know, but… what a thing to say to someone.

    People don’t seem to react well to boundary setting, no matter how polite or impolite one is. That whole “Are you ok,” with the implied concern for one’s emotional well-being, seems passive-aggressive to me. There’s an implied criticism. I don’t know, people baffle me. I prefer cats lol.

    1. Chas*

      I had a coworker ask me if I was okay when I got a bit snappy at her after she interrupted me twice during an extremely busy day (supervisor had set last-minute deadline on a day when I already had stuff I needed to do, not coworkers fault, but I was clearly rushed and stressed)- and the first time she’d interrupted me it had been to ask me if I’d seen an email she sent me, which I’d already spent time during my shorter-than-usual lunchbreak answering. It took all my self-control not to tell her that no, I wasn’t okay, I had a coworker who would rather interrupt me than check her own effing emails!

  11. Eloise Feather*

    This behavior grinds my gears beyond belief. A part of me wants to turn to the person and ask, “I am fine; are you OK?” But that would be a no-no. I have been in this type of scenario and there is something so insulting about it as if the person asking the question is somehow in a position to be the guarantor of my happiness. No. I don’t need you to save me, thank you very much. Minding one’s own business is a luxury that so few people take advantage of.

    1. Zona the Great*

      It reminds me of an insecure boyfriend. “No, I’m not mad at you but you keep asking me that same question and it is starting to make me mad”

    2. Cmdrshprd*

      “as if the person asking the question is somehow in a position to be the guarantor of my happiness. No. I don’t need you to save me, thank you very much. Minding one’s own business is a luxury that so few people take advantage of.”

      Maybe generally this is true with strangers/coworkers, but I think to a certain extent, bosses, close friends/family have more standing/business to do something about it, if you are open to it. Not because they can guarantee or are responsible for your happiness, but because they care.

      In the work context maybe boss can help take some load of your plate, or something is going on they need to be aware of, etc… Friends/family might be able to help.

  12. KG*

    LW, based on the context of the two examples you provided, I’d recommend maybe reinterpreting “Are you ok?” from a check in on your emotional state to a check-in on whether you need any practical support from higher-up.

    In the first instance you didn’t just turn down the project, you told her you had “too much” on your plate. If my supervisor followed up on a statement like that with “are you ok?” I would assume that they were checking on exactly how much too much there was on my plate and if I needed any support in managing that/any higher-level intervention to move things around. Not even necessarily so I could do the project they had asked me to take on, but just so that there was no longer too much.

    1. Coco*

      I agree with this take. In the context of “I’m swamped and can’t take on this project”, it sounds like your manager was checking to see if you needed some support (Did you?)

        1. Annony*

          I agree. I also thought that she could have been checking in on workload/support for that workload but if so she was doing it badly.

    2. Casual Librarian*

      My interpretation of this is that it was a capacity/workload check in and not an emotional check in. This doesn’t work for the second scenario as much, but it’s so normal at my work to ask ‘are you OK’ and mean generally “is work going OK or is there anything I can do to help with work’ that it did not flag in my brain as a problem.

    3. English Teacher*

      I think I also read this a little more generously to the boss than a lot of people. OP’s response to the new project would be legitimate cause for a check-in, and in the second case, that line “The thing is, even if I am in a bad mood/not okay, I don’t really want to talk to her about it!” suggests that they were visibily struggling. If the second case happens again, maybe it would be worth attempting an honest answer? “I am okay; I’m a bit tired/frustrated with this project/ dealing with something personal, but I’m managing fine, thanks.”

    4. AisforA*

      This was my interpretation as well. Although I did JUST have a conversation with someone on my team who told me she had too much on her plate and was working seven days per week to get all of her work done. That conversation was a little more in-depth… “are you doing okay, because this amount of time you’re putting into work is too much. Let’s talk about what we can take off of your plate to help you normalize your work week.”

      Turns out she was prioritizing very unimportant tasks like watching every single student’s proctored quiz video for all of her classes (we’re in academia). But that’s besides the point.

  13. Zona the Great*

    Oof. This makes me so uncomfortable. I too have had a boss like this. He took it to extremes, however. Once, I left at 5PM, saying goodbye to the two peers but not him because he was on the phone in a meeting. He cancelled the staff meeting the next day to call a meeting with me to find out why I didn’t say goodbye. This wasn’t shift work and we had no set culture that saying goodbye was expected. It was so shocking and off-putting that I couldn’t hide my dumbfoundedness. He must have taken the hint that what he did was beyond normal. He continued being overly aware of me but he never pulled that crap again.

    So maybe try letting your face speak for you?

  14. Distractable Golem*

    I’m going to disagree on this one. I think this is the boss flagging the LW’s behavior as borderline inappropriate or outside the norms for their office. What LW may have intended as “setting a firm boundary” or “using a tool to focus on a project” may have come across as snappish, sullen, or rude. Boss may be guilty of not finishing the sentence: “Are you okay? It’s not usual to snap at your boss/block out your coworkers.” While some people are more comfortable with direct language than others, I try to avoid the phrase “passive-aggressive” as it is highly coded to age/race/gender.

    1. Zona the Great*

      If true, I can say it would be an unsuccessful attempt at flagging anything as the language was indirect. “Are you okay?” is a straightforward question and I don’t think most people would know it meant, “because your response was unacceptable”.

    2. HR Friend*

      Fully agree with this take, especially that Boss isn’t finishing her question. The complete sentence might be as you put it, but it might also be, “Are you okay? Do you need more support from me because you seem unusually busy.”

      LW is also not finishing their thought! I imagine they reply to Boss’s question by saying they’re fine or otherwise shutting down the conversation. But, “I’m fine, why do you ask” would open this up a bit.

      More complete and honest communication would go a long way here!

    3. The Unspeakable Queen Lisa*

      I have no idea what age/race/gender you imagine is coded to being PA. Guess culture is a thing in many countries and cultures.

      Regardless, if boss didn’t say what they really meant, then it’s on them, whatever you label it. It “may” have meant 5 other things I can think of, but there is no reason to assume so. And it wouldn’t change the advice, so I don’t think you actually disagree.

      1. King of Spain*

        Is your name a Moxy Fruvous reference because there are a lot of AMAZING things on this site, but this may have just taken the cake for me if it is.

  15. Linds*

    There is a great SNL sketch from a recent episode where they’re pitching t-shirts on Shark Tank; the shirt says something like “Stop asking me if I’m okay. I’m okay, but if you keep asking me if I’m okay, I’m going to cry.” And it just perfectly encapsulates the feelings that keep building behind concerned questioning!!

    1. Annon*

      I immediately thought of this and then thought it would be funny (only on SNL) if this was the boss’ psychological warfare haha

  16. Menace to Sobriety*

    I wonder if that has always been the manager’s little tick, or if it’s relatively new. Has she ALWAYS done this in your time working for her, or just suddenly started one day. If it’s relatively new in the past year or so, I’d start wondering if something has changed in your behavior or how she’s suddenly perceiving you. Have you BEEN in a bad mood more often and aren’t hiding it very well? Did you sound exasperated or impatient when asked about the project, or otherwise different than your normal tone in any way? Is she saying this in a … maternalistic, concerned way and does she treat others in the same manner? If she’s just the motherly type and asks everyone if they’re ok pretty frequently, sounds like that’s just who she is and saying, “Yep, I’m fine” over and over is in your future! But if it’s just YOU… then that needs some exploration, methinks.

  17. Nathan*

    FWIW (maybe very little), I’ve read that constantly checking in on someone and asking if they’re OK can be a trauma response. Not that this makes it acceptable for the boss to bring in to work, but it’s possible that something you’re doing is triggering her and she’s reacting by asking if you’re OK. Perhaps flagging it as Alison suggested will be enough to help her realize that this is a her problem that she needs to address.

  18. plumerai*

    Oh gosh, I used to be the “are you OK” manager! My first direct report is a very, VERY quiet person, to the point where that’s how he is identified within the organization (“Oh, he’s the quiet one!”). I’m not particularly chatty, but I think I just was projecting my own tendencies onto him: I’m neutral to chatty when I’m doing well, and quiet when I’m not.

    After maybe a year of behavior similar to what the LW described above (hopefully not quite as overkill!), he said something like: “You’ve probably noticed that I’m just a really quiet person. I assure you that if I’m not OK, I feel comfortable bringing it up with you.” (Presumably within a work context.)

    And you know what? He did. Maybe a year after this, he had a personal crisis and confided in me. It felt great to know that we had cultivated that trust – trust that was enabled in part by me not assuming he wasn’t OK at every minute!

  19. CommanderBanana*

    I have noticed a trend in comment sections for using the phrase “are you ok?” in response to comments on thinks are mean-spirited.

    1. JustaTech*

      Yes, I’ve seen that in a “what you just said was so outside the norms of this space that it makes readers wonder if there is something wrong with you” way, sort of a polite-ish version of “dude, WTF?”. (Polite-ish because it very easily can be passive-aggressive.)

  20. Fernie*

    I just ran into this, but it turns out it was due to cultural/linguistic differences. I’m in the US, my new boss is in the UK. When we met in person for the first time at a big team meeting, he kept asking me, “Are you alright?”, every time our paths crossed. I was taken aback and thought, why is he asking that, do I not look alright? But I later learned that that’s how people from the UK say, “How are you?”, it’s a very neutral greeting and it doesn’t mean the same as in the US.

    So, OP, is your manager possibly British?

    1. I'm just here for the cats!*

      Good to know about that bit of linguistic diffrence between US and UK. But it sounds like this is a new thing for the boss to start.

    2. Hrodvitnir*

      Haha, I think that’s *wildly* unlikely here. As you probably eventually ascertained, asking if you/everything is alright like that is done in a very light tone and not the way described here.

      But it also made me laugh because perhaps more common is to literally just say “alright?” and keep walking, much like the “how are you?” in passing in the US.

      I can imagine that might be incredibly confusing if you’ve never encountered it before.

      1. Jennifer @unchartedworlds*

        Yes, have often encountered this as a greeting. But then I wouldn’t expect to hear the “Are”. As a greeting, it’s “A’right?” or “Y’a’right?” – and in a tone that’s neutral-to-friendly, not concerned.

        1. londonedit*

          Yep, it’s a greeting here. Means the same as ‘Hey, how are you?’ Two British people can pass each other in the street, nod briefly, say ‘Alright?’ ‘Alright?’ and go about their day secure in the knowledge that they’ve said ‘Hello, how are you? Fine thanks, you?’ to the other person. It doesn’t literally mean ‘Are you alright?’ and you wouldn’t use the full ‘Are you alright?’ as a greeting.

    3. Filicophyta*

      Yes, coming here to say the same. It’s caused a few minor rifts in multi-cultural workplaces I’ve been in.
      To a North American, “Are you ok/alright?” sounds like there is a problem to enquire about, while “How are you” is a greeting.
      One British co-worker asked me if I was ok everyday and I wondered if I really looked that bad or tired in the mornings. I eventually got a bit annoyed with him and asked him to specify what was wrong and a third worker explained it to both of us.
      My landlord (non English speaker in a non-English speaking country) asked me “are you ok” whenever we crossed paths but at that time I didn’t know the usage and assumed something was wrong with my unit.
      However, from the timing OP describes, maybe that’s not what is happening here.

  21. Roeslein*

    In fairness, if my employee told me they had too much on their plate (i.e., that their workload was overwhelming), it would send the bells ringing and I might ask if they were ok! Not in a passive aggressive way, but because saying something like that is a big deal in my industry – I have had people quit due to overwork before who had never complained (we are a matrix organisation so you can’t really have full visibility on someone’s workload) so I would want to check if they were managing / it was a temporary situation or if I should be concerned / offer help / find more resources to deal with whatever needs to be done.

    1. JustMe*

      I agree with this so much! If my team couldn’t take on something new but I understood their workload to be ok for taking on the new task, I would definitely be checking in pretty quickly. It just may mean their current workload is heavier than I previously understood it to be. I also used to do the job so if someone’s workload feels too heavy for them, that would be an additional red flag because it may mean somethings going on personally or they may need more resources/training.

    2. SusieQQ*

      This is a good point, although it’s not how I interpreted the letter. It’s not as though LW approached their boss to say that they had too much on their plate. LW’s boss asked if they wanted to take on an additional project and they said no because they had too much on their plate. I interpreted that as “I have too much on my plate _to take on additional work right now_” as opposed to “I have too much on my plate _in general”_ but I could see it taken either way.

      That being said, if one of my DRs told me that they had too much work on their plate, my response would not be “Are you okay?” It would be things like “Let me help you prioritize” or “What can you delegate?” followed up with something like “How has your workload been lately?”

  22. Lobstermn*

    I feel like LW could just straight-up interpret the behavior as #2, and then cheerfully blow it off.

  23. emmelemm*

    Seriously, even if you’re in a good or decent mood, the quickest way for someone to put you in a bad mood is to keep asking, “Are you OK? You seem upset/glum/distracted/different.” Well, I WASN’T…

    1. allathian*

      Yeah, this. Thank goodness my current manager isn’t at all like that. I don’t have to keep a grin plastered on my face all day at the office. Granted, I’m in Finland and we’re well known as a nation of introverted grumps who barely acknowledge the existence of other people around us, especially in winter (Jason Bourne would pass unremarked in the street because most people wear an expression reminiscent of his, Matt Damon has Finnish ancestry and he’s never looked as Finnish as he did in the “Bourne” movies). I’m exaggerating just a bit, but there’s some truth to it.

  24. Lola*

    My boss does a version of this. Every. single. meeting she wants to have a check in to how I/we are doing. Or after a client meeting to know “how did I feel” about how things went. I dunno, sometimes work is just work and as long as things didn’t go off the rails, I don’t really have feelings about it. Honestly, sometimes it’s exhausting. If I’m getting my work done and doing it well, I’d rather not have to share my feelings all the time. I know from her it comes from a place of anxiety and taking some coaching classes from a somewhat questionable pseudo-psychology institution.

    1. allathian*

      I’m sorry, that sounds frustrating.

      Maybe reframing it a bit in your head might help, like instead of “how do you feel” you respond to “how do you think?” Then you could respond with “Oh, I think it went well in general, although we still need more information from the client to move forward on X” or whatever. You should be able to disengage your feelings even if she keeps bringing them into the conversation.

  25. BuggyBee*

    My comment is bound to be buried, but I felt compelled to comment because I recognize myself in the managers’ behavior and I wanted to express my appreciation for Alison’s compassionate advice and also explain why I have that habit and how I have been working to overcome it.

    I was raised in pretty emotionally volatile home and as a child, I had to be extremely sensitive to the mood shifts of the adults around me as a safety measure. As an adult, it left me feeling pretty anxious and asking my husband and friends and coworkers “Are you okay?” constantly if I perceived a mood shift. Thankfully, I no longer need these skills to keep me safe so instead, they are just annoying to the folks around me and I have been given feedback in my professional and personal life that I take others’ behavior too personally. Therapy has been helpful as I work to unlearn this behavior.

    I just wanted to share my experience in case someone else recognized themselves in the manager and was struggling to understand their behavior or was maybe feeling shame around it.

  26. Nat20*

    I do think a third possible explanation for her behavior here is that she has some insecurities about being “liked” as an authority figure and is hypersensitive to people’s demeanor, and so she interprets anything short of overtly bubbly and cheerful – including just being normal and neutral – as something being “wrong”. You say she’s otherwise nice, but do you think as part of that niceness, she has a tendency to overly worry what people think? Or maybe she seems to stress about “taking care” of everyone, making her worry too much about whether they feel taken care of?

    If it seems like this is the case, it’s still annoying and she needs to stop, but you can also have some sympathy about it as it’s not as malicious or passive-aggressive as the other possibilities.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      I agree, but even so, Alison’s advice to “just use your words” still works here.

      Personally, I’d just name it the next time it happens: “You’ve been asking me a lot if I’m okay. Am I doing something that’s making you worry that I’m not?”

      It seems to me that phrasing it this way might help the boss realize that she is worrying about things that she doesn’t really need to be worrying about.

      I mean, you might need some other words after that (e.g. “No, I’m fine, just really busy with what I’m working on now”) to allay her fears, but it really isn’t on any employee to manage their boss’s insecurities.

      And yep, empathy (rather than sympathy) is a good thing to have in the workplace. But people still need to keep things in their place. Your insecurities as a manager shouldn’t trickle down to your reports.

    2. Tupac Coachella*

      I also thought this could be the case. I wonder if “are you okay” is Boss’s workplace version of “are you mad at me?” I imagine it looks like of like this:
      -OP says or does something that gives Boss a bad vibe (which may or may not have anything to do with her).
      -Boss feels the way she feels when she thinks someone’s upset in her personal life, but knows you can’t just ask that in the workplace.
      -Boss’s discomfort continues to bother her, so she asks “are you okay?” It’s caring, thoughtful, and totally not weird and needy. Right?

      If this is a “friend boss” type who thinks that being liked is a side effect or even a requirement of being a good boss, I’d bet money that this is an extension of that. She may be taking OP’s perceived mood personally instead of recognizing that OP’s day to day emotional fluctuations are not her business.

  27. I'm FINE, Jeez*

    When I was studying in the West Midlands of England, it took me ages to figure out that the local habit of asking, “You alright?” (or in the dialect “Yow’roight?”) was basically their version of a generic American pleasantry like “How’s it goin’?” or “What’s up?” and not a passive-aggressive accusation. I spent months feeling like locals were questioning my behavior or face/tone, defensively explaining each time I was fine and nothing was wrong to people who weren’t sure why I was taking their question so seriously, ha ha!

  28. Magrat*

    I do this. I definitely do it when someone seems out of the ordinary, just to check. For me, it also means “have I trespassed in a way that has more implications than the immediately obvious?”

    Now, I don’t do this in the workplace because I have a freelance job where I rarely have that kind of interaction when it isn’t also social. Also, I do it because I have intense social anxiety and I’m NT – relatedly, I have had experiences all my life of failing to notice NT signals so I try to be proactive about checking. That doesn’t make this behavior non-annoying, I realize – nor does it make it okay for the kind of workplace OP describes. But I do sometimes find that people interpret my care around making sure I’m being aware of boundaries as me saying that *I’m* upset with *them* which is not the case.

    I have found that a lot of people will say “oh I’m the type of person who’ll let you know if I’m offended!” — but that almost no one ever is that type of person. People like to think they are plain speaking–it becomes a self-conception-because it is highly valued in Western culture–but social convention strongly pushes against plain-speaking and its quite difficult to do. So while the advice about telling the boss that one will be proactive is good advice, it’s not necessarily something easy to follow through on.

    I don’t say any of this to suggest OP or Alison are wrong. But –especially since Allison made some guessss about what might underlie the boss’s behavior–I wanted to add some thoughts that may (or of course may not) provide a little additional texture.

  29. SQLWitch*

    To me, this sounds like such blatant concern trolling on the part of the boss that I’m kinda surprised Alison didn’t use the phrase :)

  30. JustMe*

    I’ll occasionally ask this question of people on my project team when they’re not engaged at meetings like they usually are. Personally, I let a week go by to see if it changes but I’ve found asking if someone is ok has led to good discussions that needed to be had (e.g. unhappy with their role, things going on at home that will affect their work for a period of time, unhappiness with a process that they think could be improved, and even they need more from me in some capacity). I would definitely get annoyed if I was repeatedly asked if I was ok or after I set boundaries. My only thought to add in this comment was a suggestion to also look at yourself to see if there’s anything triggering that question aside from setting boundaries. There may not be anything else but it’s good to look inward just to check!

  31. General von Klinkerhoffen*

    LW2 (Road rage colleague) – do you have a dashcam? If his behaviour is dangerous, and it sounds as though it might be more than simply rude, then you could consider sending any footage you happen to capture to the police. Obviously don’t try to set it up, but if you see him then your camera will see him.

    That’s kind of a nuclear option but if he’s actually dangerous it might feel necessary.

  32. anony593*

    Your words say one thing, but your body language says another. Your boss is just worried you are not happy at work or are looking to leave. If you are truly ok, then your body language and actions also need to line up with your words. Your boss is just being empathetic and want to make sure you are happy with your work.

    1. Michelle*

      No. If a coworker says they’re fine but their body language says something else, listen to their words.

      Sure, if their actions/body language are rude, violent or disruptive, then that’s not okay. If you just think they look upset because of their facial expression, posture, tone (assuming it’s not rude or otherwise problematic), putting on headphones, whatever, just let them be! If they do need to talk to you about something, that’s on them to figure out, not you.

      1. JustaTech*

        Also, sometimes a person’s body language will say “I am upset” and they will say with words “I’m fine” when what they are trying to do is to *become* fine. As in, I am upset but I do not want to be upset/know that’s not acceptable at work, so I am trying to calm down so that I can be fine and keep working.
        And in that case (especially if they immediately put on headphones) the productive thing to do is to let them alone for a few minutes and see if they do in fact become “fine”.

        It is so frustrating when you are trying to get back to “fine” and someone is hounding you about how you are this very instant, but also really wants to be (or perform) “fine” when their actions are preventing you from getting to “fine”.

        Unless it is a genuine emergency, why not give the person 10 minutes to re-balance?

    2. Irish Teacher.*

      Honestly, even if this is true, the LW does not have to spend their time monitoring their body language to see if it fits with the boss’s idea as to what indicates the LW is OK. Especially since there is no way for the LW to know what body language the boss reads as not being OK. If this is the case, and the boss is misreading the LW’s body language as indicating they aren’t OK when they are, that’s a mistake on the boss’s part and well…the odds are high in that case that the boss is probably poor at reading body language. A lot of people are.

      It’s not really possible for the LW to compensate for any possible misreading of their body language the boss may make, especially since a whole load of other things tie into such readings. People from different cultures are more likely to misread each other’s body language and people who are neurotypical and those who are neuroatypical are more likely to misread the body language of the other group. For this reason, expecting people to ensure their body language lines up with other people’s preconceptions put a particular burden on ND people because neurotypical people are in the majority and therefore ND people are particularly likely to be misread. Women too tend to be more likely to be misread, perhaps because they are scrutinised more closely.

      It is probably well-meant when people make guesses as to how others are feeling based on their body language and I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to check, because if the boss were correct, then checking in might be supportive, but they are guesses and will often (usually?) be wrong and the person who the guess is made about is not responsible for ensuring other people don’t make the wrong guess.

      Since it seems to only be the boss who asks this, if this is her reason, then the odds are that she is just very bad at reading body language and actions and the LW can’t really control that.

  33. Michelle*

    My husband has ADD and Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD). Because of his ADD, he’s hyper aware of everything that everyone around him is doing. He’s told me that it feels like I do things “at him,” even when I’m not thinking about him at all. Then, if my behavior, body language, or tone seems at all unhappy (in his mind), his RSD tells him that I’m mad at him.

    I’m not trying to suggest that this is what’s going on with OP’s boss – because there are good reasons it’s a bad idea to diagnose strangers over the Internet – but freaking out because I declined a request (he must have upset me by asking!) or put on headphones (I must be avoiding him!) is exactly the kind of thing he used to do before we got it under control.

  34. SusieQQ*

    I hate this because if you get annoyed at someone for constantly asking if you’re okay, that just confirms in that person’s mind that you’re NOT okay and that they were right to ask about it. It really puts the person being asked in a position where they can’t win.

  35. Used To Work In Office*

    I’ve seen this happen a few times. A co-worker would keep asking someone if they were okay, when it was clear they were. And I think it was used as a passive aggressive tactic. I also know that sometimes people can ask others if they are okay when they in fact are not okay themselves!

  36. Christine*

    Your manager asks if you’re okay because you were too overwhelmed to take on a project and presents an antisocial vibe. She’s wondering if you are able to do the job and trying to open communication. Every time she asks if you’re okay, she is “checking in” which makes her a caring and concerned manager. If this is annoying to you, behave in a way that communicates to her that you are no miserable and overwhelmed in this position.

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