We spend a large bulk of our days with coworkers, so it’s our human inclination to divulge some details of our social lives and be inquisitive of their lives outside of the office. And making friends at work can enliven our workdays, help us to focus better and make us more productive, according to a wealth of research.
Of course, there are questions that are totally warranted. Maybe your coworker brings their lunch every day, and it smells so delicious that you need to ask about their recipes — or to which meal kit service they subscribe. “How did you learn to cook like that?” is a reasonable question.
Maybe you’ve all signed up for a Fitbit walking challenge together and, amid the presumably friendly competition, you ask your coworker how many steps they banked yesterday. “You found time to exercise after work this week?” you ask, noticing that they’re in the lead.
But there’s a fine line of questioning that shouldn’t be crossed. According to recent research, just under half of people think asking about a coworker's social life is inappropriate, and 70 percent see it happen in the workplace.
There are questions we should never ask coworkers, even if they’re our friends in the office. Such as the following.
1. “How can you afford to do that?”
When your coworker asks you to cover for them because they’re going on vacation to Greece, and you ask how they could possibly afford a getaway like that, it’s essentially like asking them how much they’re putting in the bank every paycheck. Talking salaries with coworkers is (most of the time) inappropriate.
2. “Are you pregnant?”
First of all, if they’re not pregnant, you just insulted them. Second of all, if they are pregnant, maybe they didn’t want to tell anyone yet because they’re still early on — or because pregnant women are largely discriminated against in the workplace. Whatever the case, it’s their place to share the news when or if they’re ready.
3. “Did you make it home OK from the happy hour last night?”
This implies that your coworker was less-than professional last night, or that a less-than professional encounter occurred—whether or not they were directly involved. Others who overhear this conversation might conclude that your coworker was out late partying, possibly hung over and probably going to slack that day.
4. “How did you lose so much weight?”
Unless you’re going to Weight Watchers meetings with your coworkers or you're all involved in a group weight loss challenge together, there’s really no need to be asking them about their weight. While you may think you’re giving a compliment, this topic is a potential minefield. For one, they could be sick and unintentionally losing weight. And, in general, commenting on someone’s physical appearance can be awkward in the workplace.
5. “Why are you so dressed up today? What do you have going on?”
Maybe it’s a date after work, and maybe they don’t want anyone to know that’s why they’re skipping the non-mandatory company happy hour. Or maybe they have an interview at lunch for a new job. Whatever the case, it’s best to keep this question to yourself.
6. “Have you been working out?”
Again, commenting on a coworker’s physical appearance is considered unprofessional by a lot of professionals, and it could be construed as sexual harassment depending on the situation.
7. “What do you think about that thing that just happened in the news?”
Leave the politics out of the office. Chances are you won’t see eye to eye with someone on something, and you need your coworkers to be a team. Politics can be divisive, and that could prove detrimental to your work together.
8. “What’d you do for Christmas?”
Religion doesn’t have a place in most workplaces, and you should never assume that your coworkers celebrate one holiday over another. You may wish them happy holidays and have small talk about how everyone enjoyed their holiday break, but making assumptions about specifics might offend someone.
9. “Are you married?”
Whether or not your coworker is married has nothing to do with your work, and treating coworkers differently based on their marital status is considered discrimination. Besides, they could have a complicated relationship that they don’t feel comfortable discussing, or they might not feel comfortable discussing their sexual identity in the workplace.
10. “Do you have any kids?”
Like the marriage question, asking about kids is largely considered inappropriate. A lot of mothers and childless women express that they’ve felt discriminated against for having children or for not having children, so let your coworkers share with you about their families instead. Many will do so by displaying family photos on their desks, and then you can ask about them.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.