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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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.
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.
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
It depends on one thing:
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:
Am I right in thinking that it's unprofessional to whisper when there are colleagues in earshot?
Yes, that makes people think the following:
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).
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.
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)
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.