Sounds, Odors, and Words at Work

Etiquette is really about building relationships. Emily Post got it right when she said, “Whenever two people come together and their behavior affects one another, you have etiquette. Etiquette is not some rigid code of manners, it’s simply how person’s lives touch one another.”

Our actions affect how our colleagues view us at work. Three ways we can affect others are with sounds, odors, and words.


A recurring and annoying problem, especially in open office and cubicle areas, is people who talk too loudly on a telephone. How do you know if you talk too loudly? Ask a nearby colleague, and if you are a culprit, consider arranging a signal your colleague can use any time you start talking too loudly.


Avoid using the hands-free speaker function of a phone to dial. Everyone in hearing range is subjected to the annoying sound of the dial tone, the beeping of the keys as you enter the phone number, and the ringing until the call is answered.

Shouting and other sudden noises can be jarring to people who aren’t expecting them. If you need to talk to a colleague across the hall, get up and visit them at their desk or ask them to accompany you to a conference room or other private place for your conversation. Texting or IMing are great ways to avoid disturbing others.

Headphones or ear buds have made listening to music at work possible without disturbing others. Of course, if your office has a prohibition against using them, then don’t do it. But if it is allowed, then keep the volume turned low enough that you can easily respond to a person or caller. When a person does engage you in a conversation, take the ear buds out of both ears and focus on the person talking to you.


Be careful of splashing on too much perfume or cologne. If you company has a no scent policy, follow it.


Clean clothes and a clean you can avoid an embarrassing situation with unpleasant body odor.

Take care with the food you bring to the office. Smelly foods eaten at your desk can be really unpleasant for people who work near you as can the smell of popcorn wafting through the office from the kitchen.


Be careful using foul language at work. Companies are less accepting of foul language today than in the past.

Bigoted, racist and sexist comments are inexcusable in today’s workplace and can be considered harassment and dealt with as such. Those words apply not just to spoken words, but also to written words as well. Be especially mindful that words you post on social media can be seen by anyone, including those at your workplace. The consequences can be the same as if you wrote or uttered them at work.

If you have a business etiquette question, please email it to [email protected] You can hear more Emily Post etiquette advice on the Awesome Etiquette podcast featuring Lizzie Post and Dan Post Senning. Listen and subscribe at

Post’s newest book, The Unwritten Rules of Golf, Morrow, is available at

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers’ questions in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Post: @PeterLPost.

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