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At my computer software company it is usual to end the workweek with a beer at the office. This time me and a few developers stayed at our desks playing computer games while about 10 people were in the lounge area drinking beer.

A woman (previously on parental leave) who I never met before came in earlier that day saying “hi” to everybody and also stayed on.

Later on I went out to the lounge and made small-talk with two other male colleagues. After 20 minutes all decided that they were gonna go out and eat and then continue to a bar while I decided to head for home.

I'm standing in the hallway listening to the woman I've never met before and her colleague as we wait for everybody to get there coats. Suddenly she stops talking, looks in disgust towards me and raising her hand like a "stop" sign and says "Eeeeh!".

I'm paralyzed since I do not understand what's happening. I stammer "I'm only listening" and nothing more. She is clearly not happy with me and I'm too shocked to actually defend myself or at least try to explain that I had no intention to creep her out. Shortly after the group was ready to leave and we parted ways.

How should I handle this? Should I talk to her? Leave it be or at least mention it to my boss?

I Feel that I did nothing wrong so I should not have to apologise. On the other hand she obviously felt that I did something, My social skills are a bit limited which makes me even more worried about this.

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    We wait for everybody to get there coats Too late now, but if you would have said something like "I'm waiting for the others to get ready" instead of I'm only listening that would probably have turned the tables quickly, and highlight her own unfitting behavior – ig-dev Jan 26 at 7:49
  • Was the woman drunk? I don't really understand her behavior otherwise. – Brandin Jan 26 at 10:58
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    It was just an awkward incident possibly precipitated (or made worse) by alcohol. Just forget about it, think of it as a social "fender-bender". Really bad idea to bring it up to the woman in question and definitely NEVER a manager or HR who would be apt to overreact. – teego1967 Jan 26 at 12:53
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    @DeveloperGuy: can you clarify - was the content of the discussion you were eavesdropping on private in any way? In other words, were they making casual talk about the weather or some work project, or were they talking about personal matters? If you can edit that into your question, it might help provide some context and explain why she reacted so strongly. – dwizum Jan 27 at 13:51
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    Were you drunk? Could you have leaned in too close while listening in on her conversation and she thought you were trying to kiss her? – Luck Jan 27 at 16:49
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How should I handle this?

By moving on. Stuff like this happens. Escalating the situation will probably cause more damage to your reputation than leaving it alone.

Should I talk to her? mention it to my boss?

No, because by explaining yourself now you are communicating that the situation has more weight than it actually does - it might give the impression you actually have something to apologize for. If the issue comes up or you are asked for explanation you can always set the record straight. In that case I recommend a brief and clear explanation instead of a defensive attitude like your last encounter.

Also note that she is objectively at fault here. You had legitimate reason to be there and acted reasonably. At the same time she grossly misinterpreted your presence, falsely accused you in her own mind, and acted unprofessionally towards you. It's her own responsibility to carry out private conversation out in private, and public conversations in public.

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  • This is gold - one of my principles at work is that you can only control your conduct, not others or their demeanor towards you. I.e: dont go digging for issues when there isn't any... – Anthony Jan 29 at 0:11
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Don't bring this up with your employer! Stay away from her. Do not talk to her. Don't apologize. Don't explain. Don't justify yourself.

If you try to control what she thinks of you, you might as well quit your job now. There is no controlling what others think of you.

If she thinks you're a creep, that's fine. Let her think that. Just stay away from her. Do not try to be nice. Do not try to please her. Do not try to talk to her. Do not even smile at her.

She was rude to you. Treat her like she was rude to you. That's what a normal person would do. Ignore her. And only speak to her if your job absolutely requires it, but even in those cases, keep your interactions very short and limited and try to have at least one witness present.

And last but not least, stay away from beer at work and stay away from people who drink beer at work. If you want to socialize and drink, do it outside of work and with people that do not work for your employer. I don't care what you do, go to meetups, take a cooking class, take a salsa class, try out a new hobby. It's very easy to create a social life outside of work. It just requires an initial investment of initiative and time on your part.

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  • I removed the discussion here and edited your answer to drop the contentious word that sparked it. If your point is that one should avoid people who drink (to excess) at work then gender is irrelevant and your answer remains intact. If you make gender a key part of your answer, however justified you feel that is, it will only lead to more discussion and flags which will ultimately lead to us removing this post to stop the bickering. I'd prefer to avoid going that route, hence the small edit. – Lilienthal Jan 28 at 19:46
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It's hard to answer this directly without context. And, unfortunately, part of that context is something that none of us will likely ever know (what was going on inside the other person's head). However, there is still an opportunity for some general guidance for your situation. You asked,

How should I handle this? Should I talk to her? Leave it be or at least mention it to my boss?

Basically, you're asking, what should I do now?

It's best if you do nothing at this point. Ideally, everyone will forget about this and move on.

But what if people talk? What should you do then?

If this event does grow legs and turn into office gossip, and that bothers you, you can always offer a simple explanation:

Yeah, it was a little awkward, she seemed to be having a private conversation while I was waiting to grab my coat.

Then, just leave it be. Don't get dragged into the gossip cycle any more deeply, and don't make a big show of defending yourself, or else you'll risk looking suspicious. People may talk about something like this, but the thing about office gossip is that the focus will always be on the hot new story - and hence, gossipers tend to have short memories. By next week they will probably be talking about some other issue cause by someone else, and you can forget about it too, and move on.

More importantly though, is perhaps a question you haven't actually asked:

What should you do next time this happens?

Even if you decide to never hang out with your workmates again in any capacity (which would be a shame), you'll probably have some sort of similar situation under some context with some group of people. And that gets us to the crux of the matter: It sounds like this woman was upset that you seemed to be listening on a private conversation. That's reasonable - no one likes feeling as if someone else is eavesdropping, even if the eavesdropping is unintentional. Which seems to be the case for you - you were only trying to get your coat, and there she was, sharing some private information in a public place! While the fault may technically be on her, that doesn't mean there aren't things you can try in order to disarm the situation, rather than leaving her feeling creeped out.

So, if you find yourself standing quietly by, while other people are talking, consider if the details of their conversation are obviously private or not. Or, even if you can't tell if they're private, if it seems like they aren't intending other people to hear, you can always try any of the following things:

  • Step away quietly and wait out of earshot.
  • Grab your coat and move on as quickly as you can.
  • Clear your throat, or shuffle your feet, or do something else to make it clear that you're nearby. If they look up at you, you can smile and quickly say,

Hey, just waiting to grab my coat!

(to be clear, telling them that you're listening makes the whole situation even more awkward, because you hearing their conversation was likely the very thing that made her upset - so next time, maybe pick some different words).

The "offense" of eavesdropping essentially requires that the offending party is doing it in stealth. By making your presence known, you absolve yourself of any possible intent. If the other parties are making small talk about the weather and they don't care about people overhearing, then no harm done. If they're having a private conversation, well - you've made it clear that they've chosen a bad location, and the onus is clearly on them at that point to either continue, knowing that you're there, or wait until they're in a private location. Sometimes, just making your presence known in a situation like this can be a graceful solution, since you put the ball in their court and give them the opportunity to fix the situation they've caused by talking about private things in a public spot.

Of course, if you know they're talking about private things, and you just stand there anyways, you're putting yourself in a position to be causing a problem (even if it's "their fault" that they are talking about private things in public).

But, the moral of the story is: even if you are totally innocent to the conversation, and have no intention of eavesdropping, you can still actively take steps to diffuse the situation.

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I'm standing in the hallway listening to the woman I've never met before and her colleague as we wait for everybody to get there coats. Suddenly she stops talking, looks in disgust towards me and raising her hand like a "stop" sign and says "Eeeeh!".

This sounds like an unusual situation. Why are you in a hallway with these individuals to begin with? Yes I know you were waiting for the others to get their coats, but even then, why did you have to wait for them? You were going home and you could just leave.

I'm paralyzed since I do not understand what's happening. I stammer "I'm only listening" and nothing more. She is clearly not happy with me and I'm too shocked to actually defend myself or at least try to explain that I had no intention to creep her out. Shortly after the group was ready to leave and we parted ways.

You use the word "listening" twice to describe your relationship with this person. I think that is a poor choice of word and her behavior may be justified, albeit a bit overblown since everyone is in a friendly environment as oppose to a public space. Perhaps drinking compounded her overreaction. Normally a person might ask who you are. In an office environment, I'd expect someone to introduce themselves like, "Hello, my name is Jack, I work as a software developer with Rick, who you know. And you are...?" But it sounds like they were drunk and perhaps you didn't know how to handle yourself.

Overall I think you used a poor choice of word. It sounds to me like you had little reason to be in his hallway since you said you wanted to go home while everyone was preparing to leave to a bar. So it's possible she misread the situation as you two never met and suddenly you're just seemingly standing there.

I don't think the situation will come up again. It's possible these women talked about the situation about the "guy listening while in the hallway." Hopefully you have someone backing you up that perhaps you were waiting on them as they got their coats.

So don't worry. Just learn and move on. Next time say, "sorry I'm waiting for the guys, I didn't mean to intrude." Even then her reaction was so out of place I would have just laughed and thought she was drunk.

Next time just leave. Tell everyone "good night I'm going home." And leave. No need to wait or stand around listening to people. Just grab your things, and leave the door and don't worry about anyone else or what they're doing since you're leaving anyways.

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  • @StephanBranczyk So after telling everyone, "good bye" you still wait for them? Why? You're leaving and already acknowledge that you are going. That sequence of event does not make much sense to me. If I tell someone goodbye or someone tells me goodbye, I don't expect them to be waiting for me. Either way, I have no idea why someone would say good bye then stand around "listening" to two people talk in a lounge. It's a awkward situation that the OP got himself into. Next time he should go when he says good bye. – Dan Jan 27 at 18:36
  • Even if you think he might be lying, I doubt that line of questioning will go anywhere. Personally, I always wait for friends/colleagues when I know we might be walking in the same direction. – Stephan Branczyk Jan 27 at 18:50
  • @StephanBranczyk Now you're saying things I never said. I never said he lied. I simply said why is he waiting in the lounge listening to two strangers talk to each other after saying good bye to each other? It's precisely what he said in his sequence of events that he was at a gathering, decided to go home as people decided to leave for dinner and a bar, then he waited for everyone in a lounge as he listened in on two people talk. – Dan Jan 27 at 19:01
  • @StephanBranczyk Plus I never said waiting for someone is wrong. It's just wrong that you're listening to two people talk who you never met. Her reaction as overblown but understandable. He asked what he can do and the simplist thing to do is simply leave after you say good bye to everyone. Don't stand around and wait. Bad things happen as seen here because people just don't understand why you're still around after saying goodbye. – Dan Jan 27 at 19:04
  • In hindsight, yes. I suppose that's what he should have done. "Don't stand around and wait. Bad things happen as seen here because people just don't understand why you're still around after saying goodbye." That being said, I almost always wait myself and never anything bad has ever happened because of that. – Stephan Branczyk Jan 27 at 19:32
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Inform your boss that it happened to protect yourself.

Basically, this is the standard CYA procedure. Inform your boss in writing about the facts of what happened (usually through an email), in case the woman who overreacted decides to continue overreacting and escalates to making an HR complaint, or continues with a pattern of similar behavior. Don't speculate or discuss what you think she might have been thinking, just stick to the pure facts of the incident.

Once you've done this, move on and pretend it didn't happen. Unlike some other answers, don't avoid or ignore her, but don't seek her out, either. Just treat her like any other work colleague.

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I think it’s really hard to give a sane answer on something like this without knowing most of the people and the circumstances in detail.

English is not my native tung, but from reading your text I would have most problems if I where in your place with the phrase: “I’m only listening!” I would assume that you - in hindsight - would’ve better answered like: “Hey I’m only waiting here for my buddies to get their coats. Go somewhere private if you have to talk about something private.”

This is why I personally would indeed speak to her and bring up, that the situation was uncomfortable for you, and that you of course didn’t meant to listen, but did only wait there, actually without a chance to avoid their talk.

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Sounds like this person has some issues:

1) She doesn't know how to address people. She didn't need to be rude, she could have said something like "please don't eavesdrop on our conversation" if she thought you were eavesdropping. However, her first reaction was to be as rude as she could possibly think of.

2) She expects to have private conversations in the hallway outside the office at the end of the day. Heck, not only could she be heard by someone from her own company, but perhaps people from other companies/offices within her company could also hear her. If she wants to have a private conversation, she should go somewhere private, or save it for later.

3) She believes she is the most important person in the world and everyone is interested in hearing what she has to say, like people actually care to eavesdrop on her conversations.

4) She has something to say to one colleague that she thinks other colleagues should not be privy to; this sounds like gossip or badmouthing someone behind their back.

What you should do is to stay away from her at all costs. Do not interact with her, either in a professional or extra-professional way. If you are at a company function and forced to interact with her (e.g. she says hi to you), simply walk away and do not engage. If you are forced to interact with her team, try to interact instead with a member of her team who is not her. If you are forced to work together with specifically her on a project (you seem to be in different departments so this is rare), express to the person who gave you this assignment that this person is toxic and you would prefer not to be put on this assignment (try not to go into detail if you can; if you are pressed you can explain it roughly as I did above).

Basically, she is a piece of furniture to you from now on, and you interact with her the same way as you would interact with office furniture; don't say hello to the furniture, don't ask the furniture for company information or help or advice, don't make idle chat with the furniture at lunch, and so on.

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