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10 Ways to Stay Polite at Work, Even When Your Co-Workers Aren’t

12 minute read

If you want to succeed at your job—whether or not you work at the corporate level—it’s a good idea to have a grasp on business etiquette. For example, you should know that you should stand when being introduced to a new person or send a thank you note after an interview. Too often, though, situations arise in the workplace that go off script from scenarios in most career books. When you’re working with the same colleagues, with vastly different background and experiences, day in and day out on high-stake projects, tensions are bound to arise. So how do you stay your best self, especially when others aren’t? How do you act like the bigger person if a coworker doesn’t feel like they were in the wrong? For some companies, the answer is cut and dry: Cut your losses and move on in name of the work. But with more relaxed company cultures that value individuality, it can sometimes feel like everyone’s in high school again. Instead of going to HR (they have other work to do besides mediate every small personal quarrel!), Real Simple tapped modern manners columnist Catherine Newman (etiquette expert and author of the parenting memoir Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood’s Messy Years) to answer some of the trickiest modern business etiquette situations. Like what do you do when an equal colleague treats you as an inferior? What should you do if you see immoral, but not necessarily unethical, behavior displayed by your colleague? How can you respect other’s feelings and still be focused on your own career goals? Read on for Newman’s answers to these questions, and more.

A fellow member on my advisory board often barks orders at me. How do I ask him to speak to me politely? — S.T.

Model politeness and try transparency. Take this person aside—or send him an e-mail—and describe your experience. “You’re probably accustomed to being in charge at work,” you might say. “But this is a more collaborative environment, and I would appreciate greater courtesy and respect in our interactions.” But I confess that my actual behavior has occasionally diverged from my own sensible advice. When I’ve received rudely imperative e-mails from coworkers, I have sometimes responded, “What’s the magic word?” followed by—wait for it—a smiley-face emoticon. Sometimes a gentle, good-natured reprimand just feels so right.

A few months ago, I found out that an African American candidate for a job opening at my company was being referred to as the “minority candidate.” I didn’t say something in the moment, but should I speak up, now, months later? — J. P.

This is such a hard question that I asked Allessandra Bradley-Burns, a corporate-diversity expert and a cofounder of the firm DEILAB, which creates engineering and innovation training and products, to help think it through. She pointed out that the current highly sensitized racial environment can leave us at a loss about how to act and feeling as if minority is a word with negative associations. But, as she put it, “any time a company communicates the importance of hiring people of color, we should celebrate that.” So the fact that your company made a point of noting a minority candidate is a good thing. “Of course, what we hope,” says Bradley-Burns, “is that companies will see being a minority as one of the many assets that a qualified candidate will bring to the table.” OK, now to your actual question: What should you have said to your coworker? Maybe something like “So what you mean is that she has everything we’re looking for and she’s a minority? That’s awesome.” It might be helpful to start a conversation—with that person or more broadly in your office—about how to describe all of a job candidate’s qualifications equally, rather than leading with race, so that being a minority finds its place as one of many positive attributes.

Read More: 7 Signs Your Boss Is Toxic

I’m 24 and competing against an older coworker for a full time position. She often puts me down in front of our manager to make herself look better and increase her own chances, but how do I tell her—and my manager for that matter—that, regardless of age, she is being disrespectful? — K.W.

It’s too bad that the promotion system at your workplace stirs up so much stressful and unproductive competition. Ideally, your manager sees this person’s slanderous behavior for what it is and will be more inclined to hire a gracious hard worker than a campaigning back-biter. Have a conversation with your competitive coworker. Directness is the most effective antidote to passive aggression. Say, “I know we’re vying for the same job, but let’s agree not to put each other down in front of our manager. It’s unprofessional, and it makes us both look bad.” You can’t make her change her behavior, but a polite request to behave decently might shame her into it, and it’s better than asking your manager to referee.

My coworkers forgot my birthday. Is there a way to say something without sounding rude? — E.B.

If this omission feels more like a one-off than like a representation of some broader neglect, I would let it go. Your coworkers care about you; they made a mistake—there’s always next year. But if it seems intentional, figure out what you’re hoping will happen if you confront them. Do you want them to feel bad? Trolling for guilt is a pretty thankless endeavor, and if they fall into fits of horrified apology, you might find yourself embarrassed as well as hurt. Or do you simply want your birthday to be celebrated, even belatedly? If so, then go ahead and say something. We live as adults with our fragile little-kid hearts beating inside us. If you have a chance to shore yours up by saying something, go ahead and take it.

Read More: 7 Ways to Handle Embarrassment

My work friend got a promotion and is acting demeaning towards me. I want to talk to my manager, who has also said she felt bullied, but I’m afraid that since they’re close, my conversation will not be kept private. What should I do? — L.R.

If you’ve gotten to the point where you’re considering complaining about your friend to a supervisor, that does not sound like a valuable friendship. On the other hand, if this same supervisor has vented to you about the friend, that does not sound like a viable professional situation. It’s a tough spot. But I would try once more to clear the air and speak to your friend. Give concrete examples of her behavior and the way she speaks to you that you hope will change. And if she can’t, doesn’t, or doesn’t want to try? Then change your own tune. Treat her with professional courtesy, don’t gossip about her at the office, and move forward as a reliable (if saddened) coworker.

I have a coworker who is taking a leave of absence for very serious surgery. All of us in the office want to acknowledge his leaving, but of course this is not a celebration. Is there a protocol for this type of situation? — M.H.

However you end up expressing your best wishes, your coworker is lucky to have such caring and conscientious people in his life. I think that how you should respond depends on who he is. Of course you wouldn’t want to stage an awkward event that draws attention to unfortunate circumstances or breaches confidentiality. But if he has been open with everyone about his situation, then I think it would be nice to say something like, “We were hoping to gather for a send-off before you go. Would that be OK with you?” I like the idea of marking the occasion—with sandwiches or cake—because health crises can be so isolatingly private. If you imagine that your coworker would be more embarrassed than grateful, then perhaps you could all simply sign a card wishing him a smooth and speedy recovery, affirming your willingness to help with meals or company during his convalescence and reminding him that you’ll be very glad when he returns.

A coworker and I have weddings a few weeks apart. I am on her guest list; she is not on mine. If our wedding was larger, she would be, but that’s not the case. How do I handle this? — H.M.

Congratulations! And don’t worry too much about the asymmetry. If there’s anyone apt to under-stand the dramatic complexities of a wedding-guest list, it’s your coworker. She may have invited 400 people to your 75; you may have been under different financial or familial constraints; she may have invited everyone from work and you not a sole office mate. Every couple gets to celebrate according to their own vision (or, at least, according to the vision of the bossiest in-laws). If there’s tension to dispel or you would like to preempt the dread of her discovering the missing invitation, feel free to describe your list’s limitations. If, however, the scenario is more conspicuously awkward—there’s a bus full of folks coming from the office, say, and she’s just not one of them—then there’s not much to be done. We’re all trying our hardest not to hurt one another’s feelings, right? But this is grown-up life, not the tit-for-tat of inviting the whole class to a birthday party. Besides, she has plenty to celebrate, and newlywed bliss is bound to smooth any ruffled feathers.

Do I have to say “Bless you” to each person that sneezes at work? — A.B.

Unless you grew up during the Black Death and thus believe that your coworkers are in danger of sneezing out their souls, saying “Bless you” is more of a charming courtesy than a social requirement. And courtesy requires that you balance reality against adherence to tradition. In other words, if every time someone sneezes, you yell “Bless you” across the office, and she yells “Thank you,” and you yell “You’re welcome,” then the pendulum may be tipping away from graciousness and toward irritating interruption. “Blessing” someone has the paradoxical effect of drawing negative attention to the sneezing—especially if “Bless you” is (passive-aggressive) code for “Thanks for getting us all sick.” That said, I like to say “Bless you” when people sneeze, and I like people to say it to me. It’s a dangerous world, and I’ll take all the kindness I can get. So if you’re talking about the odd nearby achoo—not bouts of serial sneezing—go ahead and offer a whispered blessing or gesundheit. Or, you know, a tissue.

Read More: 5 Ways to Handle an Awkward Conversation

Can I correct my employees’ grammar? — O.R.

This is tricky. Your employees do indeed represent the company, and it is perfectly reasonable to hope for the strongest representation possible. On the other hand, it is rude to correct other people’s grammar, and it is not in your own best interest for your employees to feel embarrassed or overly scrutinized. If I were you, I would call an all-staff meeting and describe your grammatical wishes to the group as a whole, rather than singling anybody out. “This is a pet peeve of mine,” you can say, by way of excuse, “and it might seem silly, but I really do care about proper grammar and consistency.” Use a whiteboard to list the most common or egregious offenses that you’ve heard, invite your staff to help correct them, and make the whole exercise fun, if you can. If you like, send out a follow-up memo with a cheat sheet of correct usage. Your employees may feel grateful for the professional polishing.

I received money from about 50 of my coworkers, as well as individual gifts and gift cards from a few people at my baby shower. How do I properly thank everyone? — A.D.

Lucky you for having such a festive and supportive community of co-workers! Standard etiquette rules suggest that a group gift can be met with a group thank-you, provided that it’s a large group (50 qualifies!) and not a handful of people to whom you could readily write personal notes. Likewise, individual gifts merit individual thanks. And certainly thank the people who organized the happy event.

This article originally appeared on RealSimple.com

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