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    Miss Conduct

    Whispers at work

    Feeling put out by colleagues’ private talks. Plus, is it rude to correct someone’s spelling?

    Lucy Truman

    > I work in a very small, friendly office. Frequently people gather to talk at a colleague’s nearby desk. I don’t mind the background chatter, but what does bother me is when the conversation suddenly becomes hushed for several minutes, then returns to normal volume. I would like to say something, but don’t want to make them uncomfortable. Am I best off just suffering in silence?

    E.B. / Cambridge

    You say the conversation returns to a normal volume, which is key. If voices remained muted until everyone returned to their seat in Dostoevskian silence — or if, on the opposite yet equally disturbing end of the spectrum, sudden hushed chatter broke into stifled whoops of laughter — there would be cause for dismay. And goodness, leaving would be much worse. It would signal that others are being deliberately cut out of the conversation.

    Your colleagues aren’t displaying the most perfectly polite workplace behavior, but it’s well under the umbrella of forgivably human. Keep a sharp eye on yourself and you’ll probably realize you do the exact same thing on occasion. And why? Not because you want to exclude other people, but because this particular turn of conversation, however innocuous, is one that others might find unappealing to overhear. The apt but profane Samuel L. Jackson quote that occurred to you in the staff meeting. What happened when your twin preschoolers walked in on you in the bathroom. Details of the Mad Men episode that half the office hasn’t seen yet. Lady stuff. Guy stuff. TMI stuff. You want to share it with the people you’re talking to, but you don’t want to get it all over innocent bystanders.

    > Is it bad manners to correct someone’s spelling?


    Anonymous / Florham Park, New Jersey

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    No, not unless the misspelled missive is a love letter or a preschooler’s first Mother’s Day card. It’s rude to correct a person’s grammar when he or she is speaking, because in order to do that you have to interrupt your friend’s hilarious or heartbreaking story in order to pontificate about faux Latinisms. Obviously only an unmitigated jerk would do something like that. Correcting pronunciation can be done with a single word, and thus is acceptable in certain circumstances (for example, if you know the mispronouncer would welcome the help or if it’s your own name that’s being mispronounced). Correcting written spelling or punctuation, though, doesn’t puncture the moment.

    Assuming that your question is based on personal experience, may I ask if you were the rebuffed corrector or the offended correctee? I ask because before my copy editors got hold of it, your letter had three punctuation errors and you hadn’t capitalized your name. Consider spending some time with a good style manual (I recommend Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage), and make sure your corrections are correct.

    If you are the recipient of correction, it’s probably required. If the corrections are delivered in a kind or professional manner, respond with thanks. If your self-appointed editor is rude, reply, “I’ll try to spell more accurately if you’ll try to talk more civilly.”

     Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.

    WEDDING SEASON HAS BEGUN. WHAT’S BUGGING YOU?Write to Miss Conduct at And get advice live during a chat on Wednesday, June 19, from noon to 1 p.m.