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I've always been of the opinion that whispering at work should be reserved for things like pointing out a wardrobe malfunction and not for extended conversation.

Is it unprofessional to whisper when there are colleagues in earshot?

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up vote 16 down vote accepted

Short answer: Yes.

If there is something work related that needs to be discussed privately, then that is exactly how you do it: privately. You go to a meeting room, an unattended office or if really necessary, leave the building.

It's a different matter if it's something personal, as you indicate in your question. Of course, whispering something not work related about a work colleague, well that's just school yard behaviour.

There is no valid reason why a work related topic should ever be discussed publicly by whispering. It's unprofessional and probably starts more scuttlebutt than it would if the involved parties disappeared into a meeting room.

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I must say I disagree with this. Whispering to avoid needlessly disturbing other people is not professional? What? – Davor Jan 28 at 13:12
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The suggestion to go to a private location to discuss private matters is correct. However it doesn't necessarily follow that whispering is therefore unprofessional. Consider this - if you notice your colleagues whispering, and you walk over to tell them "stop whispering", or even "how about booking a meeting room?", then you're probably going to be the one who ends up looking unprofessional. – Brandin Jan 28 at 14:29
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I also disagree, isnt unprofessional, I think is cortesy trying not disturbe other by keeping volumn down. Like in a hospital. Sometime you dont have a conference room available or have to discuss something in front of PC. – Juan Carlos Oropeza Jan 28 at 15:20
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Hypothetical - someone is looking for some feedback on some code he wrote and is about to promote to trunk. The guy in the next cube is on a call with a client. What option would you suggest that's better than the two coders gently whispering? Meeting room seems poor, since the code is on his machine, up and ready, right now. They could take a general conversation to a meeting room, but that doesn't address actual code, only what the first coder intended (which naturally aren't always the same). – corsiKa Jan 28 at 16:16
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While I understand you suggested solutions, that is not always an option. I work in an open environment and we don't have nearly enough meeting rooms, so people working together sometimes have to talk at their desks. I'd like more whispering so I don't have to hear the discussion going on two rows away from me :) – cdkMoose Jan 28 at 18:20

If these are people you suspect are gossiping or being negative about something, then yes, it is unprofessional and is considered rude in many social settings.

However, there are a lot of posts on this site about coping with noise in the workplace and a lot of it is from conversations.

I wish more people would whisper when I'm working. Whispering was expected at the library, so why not the office when people are concentrating and trying to get work done. If a conference room is not available, I'd appreciate some whispering.

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For many people whispering is more distracting than regular conversation at work though. Whispers register differently from normal workplace chatter which is easier to tune out at work. At work I'd always associate whispering with secrecy (or inexperience with workplace norms) rather than colleagues trying to be considerate. – Lilienthal Jan 28 at 11:16
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@Lilienthal: But for many people regular conversation is more distracting (librarians, for example, if their protocol is taken to represent their preferences). So that gets us nowhere as regards whether one or both of them is unprofessional. – Steve Jessop Jan 28 at 15:03
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@SteveJessop: I think it firmly gets us somewhere. What Lilienthal describes is pretty much universal: whispering produces sounds which are more distracting than talking in any typical office environment. Sure, a library may be a rare exception, but it is an exception. – Igby Largeman Jan 28 at 22:55
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@IgbyLargeman: For those that's true of, what Lilienthal says in the question, "whispering should be reserved for pointing out a wardrobe malfuction" is incredibly mean. Why on earth would would it be good practice, or more professional, to draw additional attention when you're pointing out a wardrobe malfunction? I think half of this question and its answers could be confusion over what whispering actually is. It's ambiguous, and quite possibly those in favour are thinking of "speaking as quietly as possible" and those against are thinking of "hissing loudly". – Steve Jessop Jan 28 at 22:59
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@IgbyLargeman What Lilienthal describes is pretty much universal No disrespect intended, but there's nothing universal about that at all. It's an opinion, nothing more. :) – Cypher Jan 28 at 23:21

Whispering is a tool, and like any tool it can be used for good reasons and bad.

If you're whispering to gossip about someone in the office its obviously bad. If you're whispering because someone next to you is on a call its not bad.

This is a simple case of use your best judgment. Just don't whisper anything that you wouldn't repeat loudly

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I think the heart of your answer is fine, but the way you worded it begs the question: If you're willing to repeat it loudly, why whisper it in the first place? – user1717828 Jan 28 at 14:41
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@user1717828 As I mentioned, there are some circumstances where saying it loudly isn't the best choice, ie someone next to you on the phone. – David Grinberg Jan 28 at 14:42

It depends on one thing:

  • If whispering is the norm, or, the room is almost silent, then whispering is simply being respectful to the people around you. The only possible problem is, it sets a precedent and other people might feel under pressure to whisper too (which might not be a bad thing).
  • If there's a hubub of normal office noise, then whispering actually stands out more because it's a different frequency to the normal background conversation. This is very bad:
    • It's more distracting.
    • It arouses curiosity.
    • People will naturally start wondering about why you're whispering, and none of the reasons they're likely to imagine are good.

My last office was open plan. Most people talked normally, but a couple of individuals would habitually whisper when talking to people in an unfamiliar corner of the office. I'm sure their intentions were good - probably, trying a little too hard to not distract strangers - but it would always result in many people being distracted and furtively peering over at the whisperer, trying to work out what was going on.

I can only speak for myself of course, but here are the thoughts that went through my head each time this happened, and based on point 5 I suspect others' thoughts were similar:

  1. Who's that? Why are they whispering?
  2. Does it look like something terrible has happened? I try to subtly read their body language without being noticed
  3. Usually by this point, the whisperer has noticed people looking at them, and has responded by whispering even more furtively while glancing around nervously, and the person being whispered to is starting to look uncomfortable. So I start to wonder: If there's some crisis, like the CEO has died or there's been a massive fraud, and we have to stop for a big announcement, how will I reschedule my afternoon? Is someone being sacked? Are there any clues like sidewards glances about who might be about to be sacked?
  4. I usually then conclude that based on body language, it's probably not serious, so then it becomes: Who is it they're gossiping about? I glance around looking for people between 3m and 10m from the whisperer who might overhear talking but not whispering. Are they talking about me? Is anyone reacting nervously like they've got a secret reason to think these two people might need to talk behind their back?
  5. Usually by this point, I've made accidental eye-contact with at least one other person who's doing exactly the same thing I am, which is usually awkward but funny.
  6. By this point, I'm usually starting to conclude that they're probably just being needlessly conspiratorial, and I usually get frustrated, resenting the whisperer for distracting me and making a professional office feel like something from a high school drama.
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Am I right in thinking that it's unprofessional to whisper when there are colleagues in earshot?

Yes, that makes people think the following:

  • That you are whispering about them. This definitely makes them feel bad.
  • They feel left out. This gives them a feeling that you don't consider them as a part of your close mates. This does no good except increase the distance between relationships.

In fact, it'll irritate the others who aren't participating in it, and affects their productivity too. And that's not a good way to build workplace rapports.

So, use the meeting room for a work-related discussion. Else, have a nice, quick normal water cooler talk (and definitely don't whisper).

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I have meeting in my seat all the time, because my PC is there and I cant take it to conference room, If someone think Im talking about them, they are paranoic. And if they feel left out they are very insecure or low self esteem. Neither are my problems. – Juan Carlos Oropeza Jan 28 at 15:27
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How will you see the difference from outside, two ppl talk to each other very close and with low voice? – Juan Carlos Oropeza Jan 28 at 15:36

I find whispering is quite normal actually. My office is open space, and we usually work in pair, so just imagine that all of us speak at a normal volume, that would be a chaos. So we speak in a low tone, enough to be heard within our space, (can be assumed whispering), so we don't disturb other colleagues.

As long as when they're whispering, they don't look around or at someone, I think it's fine. I would just go about my job.

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"just imagine that all of us speak at a normal volume, that would be a chaos" -- it's also what several people here are describing as their normal working environment. I try to pity them without blaming them for their misfortune ;-) – Steve Jessop Jan 28 at 23:15

It depends. In one of my previous jobs, we whisper as the boss is quite sensitive to noise. (There are times when the boss leaves the door open)

We were advised to whisper instead of having normal level volume conversations. Thereafter, a 'quiet zone' policy was implemented (That's how sensitive my previous boss is). - [NOTE: It's a business support and marketing company, not a library]

As long as you aren't gossiping, I don't think whispering is bad. Whispering may be considered as a form of respect to other colleagues who are concentrating with their respective work.

On the case when there's a colleague in earshot - it doesn't matter that much, just don't look at that colleague's direction and make it sure that the whispering doesn't cause paranoia. (In my case, there were no we-talking-about-others or others-talking-about-somebody issues)

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Today I was working on something that required quiet concentration. Some colleagues near me were chatting. I was building up to asking them to go somewhere else, when one of them must have picked up on my look, and they started whispering. (I hadn't meant such a pointed look, but hey!)

Anyway - this was almost as distracting. I really wished they had taken their chit-chat to the nearby coffee/meeting room.

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protected by Lilienthal Jan 29 at 11:22

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