A colleague came to work with a black eye. His bruises have nothing to do with work and don't impair him. We are on the same hierarchical level, but work in different teams and on different projects. We see each other every day, but our interactions are usually limited to greetings or small talk. Even though our work-relationship is not too close, it's friendly and he is a nice and respected colleague. Outside of work, we do not meet each other.

My reaction was to greet him and ignore the black eye, when we entered the building. But I wonder what the most appropriate reaction would have been. My goal is to keep it professional and also make the colleague not feel uncomfortable.

What is the professional and appropriate reaction to a not-so-close, but friendly colleague with a black eye?


How to comment on physical changes and alterations of colleague's appearance is somewhat related, but the situations (someone dyed their hair) seem to be too different. I have a black eye. How do I respond to the inevitable curiosity and protect my workplace reputation? is from the point of view of someone with a black eye, who is concerned about their reputation. While questions may be considered annoying, they are afraid of gossip that could rather be the result of people not asking, but guessing.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Nov 27 at 3:09

10 Answers 10

up vote 169 down vote accepted

I would simply ask

It looks like you have hurt yourself. Are you OK?

If he is a respected colleague, I don’t think they would get uncomfortable with that.

It is possible they may get this question all day but ignoring it seems even more rude to me. If they are not comfortable discussing this, they may just brush it off or depending on your relationship talk more about it.

Asking about it may just make them feel better that you care and it is worth taking the risk of having a possible uncomfortable moment.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Nov 29 at 21:34

Completely ignore it... Carry on with your work. If they don't bring it up then don't mention it. This is the safe option which you won't harm anyone nor will it affect them.

However if they do mention their black eye, say something like

Oh yeah, what happened with that by the way? (if you don't mind me asking)

Otherwise assume they don't want to talk about it and leave it at that.

You obviously both know it's there but if your colleague does not want to talk about it they will not mention it. Avoid getting into the unwanted conversation.

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    (As I outline in my own answer...) I can't quite agree with this. The dividing line is something so blatant that "pretending to ignore it" would, in itself, be a "enlarging" act that "makes something of it". In a word, "pretending to ignore it" in fact "makes something of it". If someone has a pimple, bad breath, or a few bandaids, definitely this answer is the solution. But IMO with something as blatant as a black eye, then "pretending to ignore it" actually enlarges the issue. Anyway, I'm just repeating my own answer - which has exciting typography. – Fattie Nov 26 at 15:41
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    When I come to work, I meet several tens of people. Of them, I may want to share my story to maybe 5. Listening to other's creative responses and trying to be creative back is exhausting enough to enjoy even poorly played pretension to ignore. – max630 Nov 26 at 18:05
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    I downvoted. Since a black eye can be a sign of domestic violence, I think we all have a duty as human beings to reach out and let them know that they are in a safe supportive environment. It can be as simple as "Is everything ok?". Obviously don't pry and allow them to brush it off if they want to, but making a decision to completely ignore potential signs of abuse (especially if you're obvious about it) can make people feel even more alienated when they are at their most vulnerable. – Mike Ounsworth Nov 26 at 18:24
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    @MikeOunsworth Having a few dozen people, including plenty who are basically strangers, ask whether you're okay is really exhausting, regardless of whether or not you are actually okay. Maybe it depends on the size of the company. If they were close (or even not so close) friends, then I'd say, yeah, sure, go for it. – Dukeling Nov 26 at 18:35
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    @MikeOunsworth Don't put words in my mouth. – Dukeling Nov 26 at 18:56

There are two keys to this business communications situation.

The two keys are:

1. It's actually unrealistic to "pretend to ignore it".

If you stand in the elevator "pretending to ignore" such a remarkable thing, you're actually making it a big issue.

You're signaling that it is a dramatic issue, which people will gossip about, which is so "unusual!" it warrants exceptional handling; you are enlarging the issue.

2. Make it a passing matter, as "small a deal" as possible. The opposite of a big deal.

Simply ask as briefly as possible what happened - and then drop it.

In English, use the obvious short formulaic phrases: "Oh, what happened, you're OK?" or "That must have hurt, how'd you do it?" As soon as the person answers, return a one-word pleasantry and move right on to business of the day.

Understand that formulaic communications are a mainstay of human existence, they are incredibly reassuring. This is the very nature of politeness.

It's absolutely key in business situations to be able to deal with and then completely set aside personal issues.

This interesting example illuminates some critical aspects of communications in the workplace.

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    I feel like "pretending to ignore it" is only a problem if you (a) usually discuss similar things with them or (b) find yourself awkwardly staring at it. If I barely speak to someone, the "normal" response would be to continue barely speaking to them, not to suddenly show an increased interest because of their black eye - that would make it weird. – Dukeling Nov 26 at 18:15
  • "you're OK?" should be "are you OK?". "That must have hurt, how'd you do it?" is prying into what might be personal business. With the relationship the OP has stated he has with this individual, I would go with something more like PagMax's answer... "... are you OK?". – JeffC Nov 26 at 22:15
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    Pretending to ignore it could also be misunderstood as not giving a damn who is out to hurt your colleagues.... – rackandboneman Nov 27 at 0:07
  • Your two keys points are correct, but your implementation of the second one is not. You should not ask how they did it - they may not want to talk about it. Asking if they're ok, or even asking whether they want to talk about it, would both be acceptable in my view. – AndyT Nov 27 at 9:28
  • @AndyT and others - for sure, the (two or three) specific words you use would depend on the exact setting, national location etc. As I mention, formulaic utterances are a mainstay of human interaction, at the core of politeness. – Fattie Nov 27 at 10:44

I would suggest you get one chance at an immediate reaction, when you first see the colleague, and it should not include the slightest hint of asking what happened:

  • wow, that looks painful, poor you!
  • oh my, are you ok to work today?
  • ow, you ok?

Not "I bet there's a story behind that!" or "looks like you had an interesting weekend!" or anything like that.

If the colleague wants to talk about it, they can, as easily as "I'm fine, thanks - skied right into a tree, can you believe it?" sort of thing.

If you "missed your window" to say something sympathetic, you'll get one more window the next time you see them alone. Here you want to explicitly mention that you avoided the personal topic before this for reasons of discretion (as though somehow nobody else would notice if you just don't mention it) by lowering your tone and perhaps starting with "now that it's just us two,"

  • sorry if everyone's saying this, but your face - that looks painful. Anything I can do to help out?
  • let me know if you need the lighting changed or anything because of your eye, eh?
  • hope that heals fast, bud, and that it looks worse than it feels

Again not even a touch of wanting to know what happened. Just practical offers or expressions of well-wishing. Bringing the topic up allows for any conversation the colleague wants, but not asking or even hinting makes it easy for them to just thank you for what you explicitly said and take the subject no further.

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    As someone who came to work with a black eye once, concern without curiosity would have been so welcoming. – thursdaysgeek Nov 26 at 16:42

It depends on the culture.

I'm in Western Europe. In my country it would be strange not to ask the colleague if he's ok. Then, of course, you shouldn't ask too many questions about what happened unless the colleague volunteers this info. But not asking about it would be super strange, unless he's your boss or boss's boss or you hardly know each other (even in this first situation it would be ok if you know each other for some time).

However, I assume the expected behavior e.g. in the US may be different, more in the vein of "never talk about other people's looks".

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    Nah, in the US also it would be weird if you "said nothing". The thing is, it's too obvious to pretend to ignore. That's the dividing line, I'd say! – Fattie Nov 26 at 13:42
  • The last paragraph is the exact opposite of how it would be in the US. Here people can't stop talking about people's looks. – user87779 Nov 26 at 15:56
  • @user87779 I guess it must just be your friend group? ;) My friends and I rarely talk about people's looks. – JeffC Nov 26 at 22:17
  • @JeffC oh me and my friends don't. Every source of media does either sometimes or all the time (in the US at least). – user87779 Nov 27 at 7:51
  • It may even be important, that at least someone asks. They may need actually help, e.g. in an abusive relationship, and everybody around them pretend that they have not seen anything, assuming that it won't be as bad as it looks. Be careful, often this is not the case, but be aware that it may be the case. – allo Nov 28 at 15:24

I disagree with the "completely ignore it" approach. You know it's there, he knows you know it's there. You end up with some weird limbo vibe. You're not going to act natural pretending it's not there and the energy/vibe will be picked up be others and the person in question.

I also dont think you should go into it too deep as the context might be sensitive and/or not for work. I would let him know you're seen it and leave it at that unless the person starts the convo himself. E.g.:

  • *point at your eye* "Ouch". (he could simply answer "indeed")
  • You OK? ( he can answer with "jup.", which means he doesnt want to talk)

It takes the weird out of the situation.

  • Why the downvote? – Martijn Nov 26 at 15:13
  • Not my downvote, but I find "Wild weekend?" inappropriate. It might be something serious, like an abusive relationship, in which case your colleague would hate you for this failed attempt to laugh it off. – Fabio Turati Nov 27 at 0:37
  • I agree with the extremely casual approach. Not asking what happened but just very casually drawing attention to it so that if they want to talk, they can, otherwise they can just blow it off and keep going. Personally I would say "You ok?" and point to the eye. If they say "Yep" just drop it. – Loocid Nov 27 at 2:49
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    I have changed the "wild weekend" to "You OK?". IMO it's not inappropriate, but since Im looking for neutral responses, I made it a more neutral one haha – Martijn Nov 27 at 8:05
  • I'd agree with the "wild weekend" although I'd probably phrase it as "Fun night?" But does depend on the person and situation. – Darren Bartrup-Cook Nov 29 at 10:48

Twyxz's suggestion, to completely ignore the black eye, is a good one, especially if you don't know the coworker very well. I do want to propose an alternative that could work for someone you have more of a friendly relationship with.

You can bring it up, but do so in a way that doesn't pressure your colleague to share any details if they don't want to. One option is to mention the bruise without asking how they got it.

Ouch, that looks like it hurt!

This is open ended enough that they can respond with as many or as few details as they like. If they just say "Yeah, I'm hoping this goes away quickly," then don't press for more information.

Another option is to ask about it in a humorous way, similar to this answer on the question you linked:

You know when they tell you to "Keep your eye on the ball," they don't mean it literally, right?

or even to the completely absurd,

Let me guess, wrestling grizzly bears again?

Since you weren't told what happened, it should be obvious that you're joking. Your coworker can also respond with a joke, or they can choose to tell you what really happened. It's completely up to them. Keep in mind I would really only use this approach if I knew the coworker well enough to joke with them.

So if you do decide to bring up the black eye somehow, the most important part is to make sure you colleague has an out and doesn't feel they have to share any more information than they want to.

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    I feel the joke here could backfire... While it's somewhat a given you don't know whats happened, and the joke isn't intended to be harmful, what if the injury was sustained in a way that a ball is involved, and has a set of embarrassing cirmcumstances which end up causing distress at the joke? IMHO, it's just not worth the upset. – Stese Nov 26 at 14:08
  • @Stese Like I said, I would really only use this with someone I know well enough to joke with. You could also go the extremely absurd route, something like "Let me guess, wrestling grizzly bears again?" – David K Nov 26 at 14:13
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    Joking about it sounds risky. There are lots of ways in which you can get a black eye that aren't joking matters. – Erik Nov 26 at 15:05
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    My +1 for the "ouch! looks like that hurt!" bit. Simple and effective, helps to diffuse any unspoken tension without pressuring them to speak about it more than they want to. – Steve-O Nov 26 at 15:08
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    I feel like a joking approach could work, but that is highly dependent on your existing relationship with the person. – Christopher Hunter Nov 29 at 19:23

I started my first graduate job on day 5 with a black/scabbed eye after a mountain bike fall on my face.

A lot of people who I worked with asked about it and joked about getting in a fight / looked hungover (as i wore sunglasses and a plaster on my face) while everyone else just kindly ignored my looks.

The professional thing is to ignore or lightly joke / comment about the injury without too much discourse. They may be uncomfortable about their new temporary facial feature And the attention it brings as it's nothing they can hide, but also not have it be an elephant in the room.

The question lightly brushes on interpersonal skills as well as workplace etiquette and will be depending on the person, company and your relationship with the person.

  • This seems to be the best response. Unless you really know the person, you shouldn't be making any assumptions. This response makes no assumptions. – ShinEmperor Nov 27 at 14:45
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    I come to work often with bruises on my arms, occasionally on my neck or with a mouse on my face. It's possible some day I'll show up with a black eye or broken arm. What can I say, Jiu Jitsu practice can get rough! – Randy Hill Nov 30 at 2:36

What is the professional and appropriate reaction to a not-so-close, but friendly colleague with a black eye?

It is really up to you.

You have two good choices: you can ignore it, or you can say something.
There are good answers here that defend both of these positions.

If you decide to say something... since you don't talk about your personal lives... you probably should not say "What happened?" or anything else that implies that they owe you any details.

Just think about it and decide what you want to do.


I would probably say "You okay?"

They can politely respond with "Yes" and give no details. Pretend it isn't there.
They can politely respond with "Yes" and give details, maybe you can respond.
If they say, "No" you can offer to help.
If they say, "No, but I will be" say "Let me know if I can help" and drop it.

Slightly different perspective, but personally, I wouldn't want anyone to mention it. We'ere here to do a job, unless it's affecting my performance it's not relevant. There are many reasons why we would sustain physical injury outside the workplace. Maybe a wild night, maybe a sport, maybe you enjoy pain.. whatever the reason, that's your business and no one else's. The best course of action is to say nothing and focus on the job.

That's why you're there. It's why everyone is being paid. Harm comes to people all the time and in different forms. In general, I trust people's judgement. If they're at work with a black eye, it's likely not so serious they can't work.

If they're not talking about it, it's because they don't want to talk about it. That's clear enough. Personally, I think mentioning it, is more about other people than the person who sustained the injury. They know their hurt, they know you know. Why do YOU need to say something? For me, it's just people being nosy.

Personally, I would prefer people just keep to themselves. We're not here to be friends, we're here to work.

  • I'd argue that if you're going to spend 8+ hours a day in someone's company and you don't learn to care at least a little about them then I'd start worrying about you :P From a strictly utilitarian point of view, if someone has taken an injury then they're living a lifestyle which may have more and/or worse injuries in future, and then it starts impacting your own workload. You need to know you can rely on them down the line and that this isn't going to be a regular thing, even disregarding the human connection of being concerned for each other's well-being. – Ruadhan2300 Nov 28 at 12:13
  • @Ruadhan2300 I do agree that if it's habitual, for sure you might want to know. But outside that, I see it as a personal imposition. I recently had a condition where it resulted in me having a gait in my walk. Everyone noticed and everyone not only asked what I had but then provided suggestions for treatment. Which was irritating, I was seeing a physician, but apparently everyone knows better. I found that experience, frustrating. I just wanted to focus on my work and people wouldn't leave me alone with their "concern" and "suggestions"... It was infuriating. – ShinEmperor Nov 28 at 12:21
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    I imagine that's a separate issue :) Valid concern is one thing, unwanted advice is another. I'd rather work in an environment where people cared if I was hurt than not. Even if they're were being overbearing about it. Nobody wants to feel like a cog in the machine. – Ruadhan2300 Nov 28 at 12:27
  • @Ruadhan2300 I think this can be incredibly subjective. I'm a very open person at work. People love working with me. I'm very easy to work with. With a single caveat that people mind their own business about my personal affairs. For me, that's a bridge too far. To each their own, but from my perspective people asking questions is just frustrating. – ShinEmperor Nov 28 at 12:52

protected by David K Nov 27 at 15:55

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