How Much “Friendly” Interaction Is Required at Work?

I’m not crazy about my boss, with whom I now share a cubicle. I keep things civil, and meet all of my obligations, but I would prefer to have no further interaction with him. That means I would prefer not to say anything to him that’s not work related. This sounds crazy, I realize, but those are my feelings.

So, naturally, I hate that he insists on saying, “Good morning,” to me every day when I would much rather just slip unnoted into my chair. He reminds me of an intrusive man on my apartment block, who used to have a stand outside a restaurant where he sold coffee. I never looked at him, or otherwise encouraged him, and yet he insisted on saying, “Good morning!” to me every day I walked past. I first said, “Good morning,” back through gritted teeth, cranky in the morning, and wanting to be left alone, and then, finally, I graduated to ignoring him entirely. He continued saying, “Good morning!” and added derisive laughter, which he also encouraged in his co-worker at the stand, whenever I walked past.

I have the freedom to ignore, and engender further hostility, from an intrusive person working at a sidewalk stand, but I don’t have that freedom where my boss is concerned. So, to make the point that I would rather be left alone, I wait a long time before responding, and then mumble an unenthusiastic “Good morning.”

How much of this “friendly” interaction is necessary in a workplace? I feel like an ogre for asking because some would say I should want this basic level of interaction, but when I don’t like a person, and am forced to interact with him or her for my livelihood, I really don’t want it.

I felt less alone in my plight last week when I noticed a letter to Miss Manners in the Washington Post about forced good mornings. The person writing to Miss Manners was called out by a co-worker for not saying, “Good morning,” when the co-worker had said, “Good morning,” to her. The reason she didn’t want to say it in return was because the co-worker tended to wish her “Good morning” with her mouth full of food. The co-worker—ironically for someone speaking with her mouth full—called her out for being rude.

When someone says, “Good morning,” to you, and it’s a person in your life you have a relationship (albeit a forced one) with, such as a co-worker, you don’t have a choice about responding—it’s one of those things you just have to grit your teeth and do. But the question is whether a co-worker should persist in forcing social interaction with a colleague who would rather not engage? Should we be able to focus on doing our work, being a great employee, and not engage socially with anyone we don’t genuinely want a social relationship with?

My mother once found herself in the middle of a fight between two women in their fifties because one was angry that the other didn’t say, “Hello,” enough. One afternoon, one of them came into my mother’s office and said, “Did you hear about the ladies room?” My mother just laughed and said she wanted no part of mediating the dispute.

A respectful corporate culture isn’t about forced interaction. It’s about just the opposite; it’s about employees respecting each other’s boundaries. It can be hurtful and angering, but if a co-worker would rather not engage, your culture should lead the offended co-worker to take the cue and let it go. When the cue—often painfully obvious—isn’t taken, an initially well-intentioned greeting can become as harassing as being repeatedly accosted by a sidewalk solicitor.

At my first full-time job, I was the harassing-interaction offender. I didn’t have a good rapport with my supervisor, and, originally with good intentions, I would always smile and say, “Hello,” to her. She would respond with a blank face, or, even worse, hostilely raised eyebrows. I should have let it go, but seeing it irritated her, and that she wasn’t nice to me in other ways, I decided to keep doing it just to annoy her. When she continued making trouble for me, I upped the ante, and began wishing her a loud, cheery “Hello” when I walked past her office, with her back turned to me. She responded the way I now respond to my boss, seemingly through gritted teeth. I see now that while her unwarranted hostility wasn’t the right way for her to act, I also was in the wrong. I should have let it go, and simply ignored her in response. I should have taken her social cues.

A big part of success inside and outside the office, with customers and other businesses, is emotional intelligence. If your employees aren’t able to recognize the social cues sent to them by co-workers, will they be able to recognize them when they come from customers?

How can you build your employees’ emotional intelligence, so they can more effectively relate to each other, and to those you want to purchase your products or services?


Training magazine is the industry standard for professional development and news for training, human resources and business management professionals in all industries.