Social Question

Nullo's avatar

Just how private is a break room conversation?

Asked by Nullo (21828 points ) March 19th, 2011

This comes up at work now and then. I figure that the break room is a public forum (thus I should be able to jump in), but some others seem to think that I ought to ignore them.

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14 Answers

mattbrowne's avatar

Not very private. A lot of company secrets do get picked up by competitors. But this also happens on trains or airplanes. Even at the neighboring table in hotels when people are having breakfast. Some folks are really quite careless.

YoBob's avatar

Well, a break room isn’t private by any stretch of the imagination. However, from a social standpoint it is rude to but into other peoples conversations even if they are being held in public.

iamthemob's avatar

Not private at all. Employers are in fact allowed to limit otherwise protected forms of speech on their property as long as the policy is clear and applied in a non-discriminatory fashion, and doesn’t go too far.

Such limitations are generally accepted with the purpose of preventing conflicts between employees on company property. So, essentially, what you say in the break room you say at your own risk.

filmfann's avatar

As with any conversation, it would depend on the participants.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

Very Private If you tell someone a secret, it is no longer private.
Private The receiver says that they will not repeat it, and the message is delivered away from the ears of others.
Potentially Unprivate Anything shared within earshot of others, left on an answering machine, or sent via e-mail.
Not Private Any conversation held in a public spot, including break-rooms.

I’ve found that the unwritten rule is that unless you are asked to join or ask to join in on the conversation, the information overheard should be ignored. If someone wants to gossip or vent in a public spot is at risk of damaging their reputation, and it’s better to not be affiliated with it.

SavoirFaire's avatar

There’s a difference between a conversation being private and it being exclusive. Privacy is about the ability of others to hear you. Exclusivity is about the ability of others to join you. Break room conversations are not private, but they are typically invitation-only (though social conventions allow for invitations to be offered in many subtle ways).

iamthemob's avatar

I think the important thing is whether or not they objectively are correct that their conversations are or should be private or exclusive, and whether or not you should accept it if they think that the conversations are.

Depending on the topic, of course, it may be difficult to stay out. However, this is one of those situations where you have to pick your battles. And in the workplace, it’s best to respect the personal wishes of your coworkers.

IF they are talking about things that are potentially offensive, and could bring up issues of EEOC liability, there’s nothing wrong in discussing the issues with your HR rep.

12Oaks's avatar

Just keep listening but acting like you can’t hear or understand them. They’ll keep talking unfiltered and you’ll pick up on whatever it is. There is no privacy, and they shouldn’t assume any.

Kardamom's avatar

At the place where I used to work, people in high positions would walk in there jabbering away to other people in high positions, get their coffee and their lunch pails, then walk right back out, still jabbering away. Me and everybody else heard plenty of stuff that we should not have been a party too. Later in the day, you were guaranteed to hear someone else, in another part of the building say, “You won’t believe what Mr. Jensen said in the break room.”

But to respond to your question a little bit better. I have found that when 2 people are sitting next to each other (on the couch or in chairs or even standing by the coffee machine), quite closely and looking directly at each other, they are “attempting” to have a private conversation (even though they might be talking loudly enough for everyone to hear) that you are not supposed to be involved in. It’s silly, but that is what I have observed.

If these same 2 people are sitting across the table or across the room and they are not right next to each other and may not even be looking at each other directly, then it’s pretty much assumed that the conversation is open to all takers.

But with the first example, I have often seen it done (and done it myself) by saying something like, “I couldn’t help but over hear what you were saying about such and such and I think X,Y and Z” But you must throw in the part about couldn’t help but overhearing. If you just jump in without saying that (even though they were clearly talking loud enough for everyone in the room to hear) they will be offended and give you a dirty look or comment. This has just been from my own observations.

funkdaddy's avatar

Just because something happens in public doesn’t mean you’re welcome to participate.

Many weddings happen in public, jumping in the middle of them will rightfully offend people.

Phone conversations are often public, but you wouldn’t grab the phone to jump in.

Conversations are the same. There are easy ways to include yourself, especially if it’s obvious you can overhear what’s going on. Ask politely to participate, or participate unobtrusively (listen) and there’s no problem.

If people are making a big deal of the conversation being “private”, then you’re doing it wrong and making them uncomfortable.

Maybe that’s your intent?

Bellatrix's avatar

It isn’t private but that doesn’t mean those not involved in conversations taking place either have the right to join in OR to pass on information they hear. It really is just about being respectful. If the conversation you are hearing seems to be a personal matter, I wouldn’t get involved. If they are talking about movies or what they are doing at the weekend, well you should be able to join in. However, I would politely ask to join in if you aren’t actually involved to begin with.

YARNLADY's avatar

Not private, but maybe invitation only.

Seelix's avatar

Nothing said at work is private. Ever. I found that out the hard way.

blueiiznh's avatar

considering office conversation with door open and not private, i would rate it even less private

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