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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

5 Ways You're Unintentionally Scaring Your Co-workers

If you overheard a few co-workers talking about you outside the office, what would you want to hear? Brilliant? Insightful? Truly inspirational—she has enough willpower to hold off on eating her lunch until 12:01 PM every day?

All of the above, of course.

Well, what if instead you heard: means well, but…, yes, that email thing she does is horrifying, he’s without a doubt taking years off my life.

That’s not as fun. So, how can you avoid this hypothetical situation from ever happening? Well, you can make sure that you’re not accidentally committing any of these common mistakes that tend to scare people.

And not scare, like “Boo! I’ve been hiding under your desk all day!”—but scare like forcing people to ask themselves questions like: “Does this mean I’m getting fired tomorrow?” and “Do I have to cancel my vacation now?”

Confident that you’re not that person? Trust me: So is everyone else. Why not double check and make sure you’re definitely not doing any of the following on a regular basis.

1. Delivering All Updates Using Your CAPS LOCK Voice

You receive an email from a client that the presentation needs to be revamped by end of day tomorrow.

Do you:

A) Forward the email to your co-worker with a few thoughts on how this can be best be accomplished.
B) Spot him heading out for the day, chase after him and yell, “Crap, I need to send you that client email. We’re royally screwed! No way we’re keeping this account and hitting goal this year.”

While it can be tempting to go with B when you’re in the heat of the moment, it’s much more helpful for everyone involved if you take a deep breath, decide who needs to be looped in (hint: not everyone), and write out your thoughts on practical next steps to take. If those steps include “sleeping over at the office to get this done” and “finding innovative new ways to say the f-word,” take another breath and try again.

2. Sending Emails With Vague Subject Lines

Do you know what’s horrifying to get in your inbox when your team’s currently struggling with goals and the boss has made it clear that things are not good? An email that says “Team Adjustments.” Before you can even open it, you’re mentally calculating if you can survive on plain pasta until you find a new job. But then “team adjustments” turns out to mean that you’re all moving to the floor upstairs.

I’m a big believer in being as specific as possible in subject lines in general, but you should definitely be extra cautious about sending vague ones when everything’s not going 100% great at your company. Even if you feel confident in your position’s security, there’s likely someone on your team who’s secretly panicking about getting fired and is currently reading into every little thing.

So before you send out your next email, do your (paranoid) co-workers a favor and make sure that the subject can’t be misinterpreted.

3. Using Any of These Words Without Context

Except, problem, urgent, wait.

In an article that goes into depth on the topic of unintentionally horrifying words, Muse columnist Sara McCord writes that these words “that you might use regularly make people think fire drill, resulting in an almost visceral response.”

And it’s true. How often has a co-worker said, “We might have a problem with the deck,” and you’ve thought, “Cool! That makes me feel good inside and out.”

While it’s nearly impossible to avoid them altogether, do make sure that you’re providing as much context as possible so that you can avoid that fire drill feeling. For example, the sentence above becomes, “Everything’s in place for the deck tomorrow; there might be one slight issue with the timing, but I think we’ll be able to fix that pretty quickly if we can meet with the marketing team today.”

4. Sharing Cringe-Worthy Secrets

Personal secrets, company secrets, your colleague’s secret relationship with your CEO—no secret is a good secret when you’re sharing for gossip-y reasons. Not only because you’re now responsible for contributing to a cliché middle school environment at your adult workplace, but also because it puts a lot of pressure on the people you share them with. Especially if they’re not just juicy, but also involving unethical behavior. Now they’re the ones lying awake at night wondering what to do.

Trust me, I know how hard it can be keep something under wraps, especially if you’re not sure what you personally should be doing with the information. But telling the person sitting next to you won’t help. Instead, if you find yourself in this situation and are truly worried about the implications, bring it up to your manager, or your HR department, or to someone outside the company who you respect and trust to keep it confidential.

And if it’s not that grey area, but still in the “I wish I didn’t know about that relationship” area, just keep it to yourself—or to a couple of your closest non-work friends over happy hour.

5. Coming Up From Behind When Someone’s Wearing Headphones

OK, doing this literally scares people. There are few things more frightening than typing away at your computer, turning around to say something to a person nearby, and seeing a human figure looming ominously above.

So, if you find yourself in a situation in which you need to speak with someone who’s wearing headphones, approach him or her from the front or the side, or send a message first that you’ll be coming by shortly (and shortly does not mean “I’m mere steps away from you”).

And there you have it: five incredibly common habits that just happen to make your co-workers break into a cold sweat. Are they overreacting? Sure. But who among us doesn’t have that one pet peeve, that one trigger that they could do without. Be the person who makes your colleagues’ lives easier, not scarier.

Did I miss any common habits? Tell me on Twitter!

Photo of annoyed person courtesy of Westend61/Getty Images.