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“Is it Rude to Wear Headphones at Work?” and 3 Other Office Etiquette Questions You’ve Been Too Afraid to Ask

Unspoken rules your boss probably didn’t tell you — but we will.

sirtravelalot / Shutterstock
sirtravelalot / Shutterstock

Whether you just started out in your role or have been in your position for a while, you’ve probably faced some office etiquette dilemmas at some point. Somehow, simply asking what’s appropriate and what’s not never seemed like an option. “Asking questions about office etiquette forces the employee to be vulnerable,” Kyra Sutton, Ph.D., a professor in Rutger University’s School of Management and Labor Relations, tells Thrive, so many people are reluctant to directly ask for the rule book.

Instead, we try to pick up on office norms through observation — and sometimes, a painstaking process of trial and error. To help you avoid the potential awkwardness, we asked experts to answer four common office etiquette questions. Here’s their straight-shooting advice:

Can I wear headphones in the office? 

Norms around headphones really depend on your office culture. However, there are some workplace cues that can clue you in to best practices. “In a start-up environment, it is very common to see people wearing headphones,” says Sutton. “Whereas in a more traditional environment, you’re probably less likely to see people wearing headphones in the office.” Sutton’s foolproof advice? Observe leaders in your organization. Do you see them wearing headphones? If so, you’re probably OK to pop in those AirPods. As a general rule, Sutton cautions against wearing headphones during meetings or social gatherings, like team lunch or happy hours. And if you’re simply wearing headphones as a leave-me-alone signal to your co-workers, Wayne Cascio, Ph.D., a professor of management at the University of Colorado, Denver, suggests finding other ways to secure some solitude as you work.

Can I decline a meeting if I don’t feel like I have a good reason to be there?

Turning down a meeting invite can be especially tricky, especially if you don’t hold a more senior-level position or have a direct conflict with the meeting in question. Before you send in your RSVP, Cascio recommends asking your colleague how your presence will add to the conversation. “You may not feel that you have a good reason to attend a meeting but perhaps the convenor does,” he says. In some cases, your attendance won’t be “required” but “appreciated”. For instance, when you ask for clarity about why you’ve been invited, the organizer might say they respect your opinion and would like your help making a decision. In this case, you might decide to decline the invite (if you have other priorities) and offer to be a sounding board at a time that works for you, Learning to set these types of boundaries in the office is something we refer to as “relentless prioritization” at Thrive, and it can transform the way you work.

Is it rude if I don’t say good morning or goodnight to my co-workers? 

Some people wouldn’t think of rolling into the office without a cheerful hello to their co-workers.  But for others, a peppy conversation — or even a hello — first thing in the A.M. can feel a bit forced. “I am not a morning person but I really like my co-workers. Therefore, I usually say good morning. But that’s it,” says Sutton. “In general, I think it’s a good idea to greet your co-workers in the morning and say goodnight. You don’t have to walk around the office to find people to greet. However, if you see co-workers in passing, what’s the harm in saying good morning and good evening?” These small interactions might seem inconsequential, but Cary Cooper, Ph.D., a professor of organizational psychology and health at the University of Manchester, tells Thrive that it can make a huge difference in your workplace dynamics. “It is the socially skilled thing to do if you want to invest in work relationships,” he says. 

Do I have to attend alllll the office celebrations (birthdays! babies! goodbyes!), even if I find them to be too much forced socializing? 

Sorry to say, but “if most people in your office attend birthday parties and holiday celebrations, you should attend. It doesn’t mean you have to stay a long time, though,” Sutton explains. It might feel a bit forced, but these kinds of social gatherings can play a role in forging bonds in the workplace, and research shows that having friends at work can help us stay productive and engaged. If office parties are getting in the way of your workflow, though, or you don’t know the person who is being celebrated, Cascio says you should feel free to skip out on occasion. 

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