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Shhhh....Shhhh

I am in a newly constructed open plan office with a communal kitchen. The acoustics project any conversation in the kitchen into the adjacent office space. A small group without desks in this space seemed unaware of this, so I labored over an email to say, as diplomatically as possible, to the lead of the group that she may want to tell them that their conversations are easily overheard. I wanted to let them know to avoid any embarrassment on their part for what was overheard. The next time two of them entered the kitchen, one said to the other in a sarcastic stage whisper “shhh…shhh. They can hear us”. I did hear them and felt upset at this reaction. Now it feels like a bigger deal that I don’t want to pursue, but nevertheless I’m sorely disappointed and still feel I was in the right. I fear reprisals, however and being considered unreasonable even though I truly don’t think this is unreasonable.

M. W., Melbourne, Australia

It’s so unfortunate that what started out as a simple considerate action on your part to let people know that conversations in the kitchen were being overheard has escalated into a relationship issue. It sounds like the real problem here is not your original message but the possible misinterpretation of your intent. The real culprit may be the way the message was delivered—by email.

Unfortunately, when you compose an email, people receiving it have no other clues (like body language or facial expressions or tone of voice) to help them understand your intent. Email is great for transmitting factual information: who, what, when where. But when it gets into issues that seem to be about judgment or opinion or belief—the why—without those additional clues, it’s easy for people to see the negative in the message.

At this point you have two options: you can do nothing and hope the situation blows over. Now they’ve had the chance to let you know they know that you can hear them, that may be the end of it. If, on the other hand, you want to proactively try to resolve the situation, it’s time to talk to the person to whom you wrote the email. Let her know you are concerned that your email may have been misinterpreted. You really only wanted to let them know how easily you and others can hear what’s being said in the kitchen and wanted them to know it before they said anything private or confidential. You hope she and her friends realize you only had their best interests at heart. To be successful in your conversation, try to be genuine and sincere, not accusatory or defensive in your tone, and inject a little humor if you can. Projecting a “no harm, no foul” attitude coupled with a smile may put the situation to rest. Good luck.

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