What to Say in in Awkward Workplace Situations

By: Lauren Mineau

Dealing with colleagues can be simple, that is if you are lucky enough to get along with them. Other times, difficult situations arise and you do not want to offend those you have to see almost daily. There are expectations for people to have good or at least cordial relationships with our colleagues, so saying exactly what you feel may be too harsh. However, there are ways to say what you need to say without hurting someone’s feelings while remedying the situation for your own sanity.

Your Coworker is Always Negative

Venting here and there in times of frustration is one thing, but if you have a coworker who never has anything good to say, it can be like a storm cloud over the office. Try saying something about how the person’s negative attitude is affecting you and others.

“I know you have frustrations here, we all do. However, the constant negative talk is starting to influence how I feel here. I’m personally trying to be more positive.” 

Noise or Other Distractions

Perhaps a coworker listens to loud music or regularly has loud conversations or phone calls. Something as simple as loud finger drumming or humming can be disruptive. If it is a distraction, say something.

“Hey, your music makes it hard for me to concentrate. Would you mind lowering the volume or using headphones?”

Sensory Overload

Colleagues who wear strong perfumes, eat pungent foods at their desks, or have workplace plants or other accessories may trigger allergies in others. Often, people do not even realize their actions may be bothersome to others.

“I’m very allergic to a lot of fragrances and the perfume you wear triggers my allergies. I know it’s a lot to ask, but could you help me out and not wear so much in the office?”

“The scent of fish often lingers in our desk area for hours after lunch. Would you mind eating in the break room?”

In saying this, you’re not telling them to stop, but rather remedying the situation for yourself and those around you.

Constant Comments on Your Choices

Speaking of food, what people eat is quite personal. Comments on food choices can have effects that extend beyond surface level.

If some nosy cube mate decides to comment on your choice to have a slice of cake with lunch, it is ok to speak up. Whether your colleague says, “Oh, having a cheat day?” when you reach for a second cookie or, “Lighten up and have some donuts!” when you don’t have any, those comments can be hurtful, especially if that individual isn’t a close friend.

If you hear comments like this or receive them, try saying something like, “We should avoid diet talk here; food is a personal choice and comments like that are not helpful.”

Thanks, but No Thanks

When a colleague is pressuring you to socialize outside of work, it can be tough to say no repeatedly and politely. If someone is persistent in his or her invitations, saying you are busy can only go so far. If they are not taking a hint, you can be direct without being rude.

“I saw your invite to your band’s show last weekend. That is not really my scene. I hope you had a good time though!”

Not in the Budget

It is hard to avoid giving funds for retirement gifts, weddings, birthdays or other special occasions. But sometimes, you can feel pressure to give more than you'd like to, or are comfortably able to. It can be hard to be honest about your budget if colleagues earn similar salaries to yours, especially if you do not share much about your circumstances as it is.

If it is feasible, offer a small amount like $5 or $10 but limit it to that. If it’s not, or you are being pressured to give for a coworker you are not close with, be honest.

“I’m sorry but it’s simply not in my budget this month. I’d be happy to sign a card.” If you would like, offer to help plan a gathering if it is at work, be it logistics like booking a space or decorating for a birthday party.