Two of your colleagues are just metres away and engaged in an intense bout of whispering, occasionally glancing at you and giggling before quickly looking away.
Are they talking about you? If so, what are they saying and what have you done wrong to warrant their attention? Are they spreading rumours about you? Why are they excluding you from the conversation? Or are you just paranoid?
Whether at a BBQ or in the boardroom, whispering in front of others is rude at best and bullying at worst. Workplace whispering will usually make others feel uncomfortable if not anxious.
Even though most whispering is perfectly innocent, it breaches the most basic of workplace etiquettes and features strongly in the ‘how not to behave at work’ rule book.
Two colleagues may be whispering simply to keep their voices down to avoid bothering others with their chatter.
But here’s the kicker: what they are actually doing and what others believe them to be doing could be two very different things.
If the others interpret their actions as whispering for the ‘wrong’ reason, then negative feelings among colleagues will erupt.
The act of whispering itself is the issue here, not the intentions of your colleagues. By its very nature whispering is exclusionary and almost always misconstrued as gossiping.
Regular episodes of whispering in an organisation by the same set of colleagues can quickly sabotage an otherwise healthy workplace, fuel malicious gossip and innuendo and create self-doubt among co-workers.
Whispering also has a bad reputation because of its association with workplace bullying. Continuous or relentless whispering is a key tactic used by workplace bullies to exclude a victim or cause them psychological harm.
There are numerous alternatives to whispering in the workplace.
If you find yourself in an open-plan office, then the accepted practice is to lower your voice – but not to a whisper that creates suspicion among your colleagues.
And if you need to discuss a confidential matter, rather than whisper in an open place try to move to a private area so that your actions cannot be misinterpreted by others.
There will be times when whispering is okay.
You are in a meeting and feeling unwell so you whisper to the person next to you that you are going to get some fresh air. Or, to remain discrete, you whisper to your colleague to tell them they have toilet paper stuck to their shoe.
But if you come across an incessant workplace whisperer, having a quiet chat with them – but not a whisper – will usually raise their awareness and bring about an end to their whispering ways.
And remember: the key to whispering in the workplace is making sure it is done quickly and appropriately, without making bystanders feel they are being excluded or, worse, spoken about.