I have been working at my current company for a little more than a year. One of my coworkers, Zoe, was really nice to me and friendly in general, but in the last month or so, she’s felt a little cold and honestly like she just does not want to talk to me at all.
I started in my job right before the pandemic hit. At first we all worked from home, but some of us started going back to the office quite early since they took a lot of safety measures (moved our seats to be socially distant, required people to wear masks around others, etc.). My seat was moved to the row behind Zoe’s.
At first, she was pretty nice and would come over and talk to me. Once in a while, I would go over and talk to her too. But this last month, my interactions with her have felt different. She stopped saying good morning to me when she comes in and goodbye when she leaves, something she had always done in the past. Sometimes I’ll see her in the kitchen and we’ll make conversation on the way back to our desks and she’s polite, but it feels like she’d rather not be talking to me, almost as if she’s uncomfortable. And now, if we’re in a casual group conversation with some of our other colleagues, she seems a lot more relaxed with everyone else, but if I say something her tone and expression noticeably change. She’s fine in a professional capacity. It just seems like she would prefer not to interact with me outside of work-related exchanges.
I’ve been trying to rack my brain to figure out if I did something or if I changed somehow, and it’s causing me a lot of anxiety at work. Can you tell me if I’m just overthinking and reading way too much into things? What should I do going forward?
I wish I could tell you what’s going on but, like you, I don’t know.
As I was reading through your letter, I was ready to tell you that this might have nothing to do with you at all. This is a hard and weird time for many people, and Zoe might have her own stuff going on that’s causing her to be more withdrawn at work. That would be the case even if we weren’t in a pandemic; it’s easy to fall into thinking another person’s behavior is about something we’ve done, when often they’re not thinking about us at all!
But if you’re seeing her continue to be warm and relaxed with others while she’s reserved and chillier with you … well, it might be about something between the two of you. Or it might not be! But it’s not unreasonable to notice the difference and wonder what happened.
The thing is, there are so, so many possible explanations, some of them about something you’ve “done” and others things you would have no control over. To illustrate how broad the range of explanations could be: Maybe you got a project she really wanted and she feels like you stepped on her toes. Maybe you’re a talker and she’s trying to keep conversations short because she finds it hard to extricate herself otherwise. Maybe she was bothered by a comment you made on her work or a political viewpoint you shared, or she feels you didn’t give her enough credit for a project you both contributed to. Maybe you are obsessed with Animal Crossing and she just cannot take any more discussion of it. And on and on.
If you reflect on when the change started, that might point you to what happened. If she became chillier right after you were lavishly praised for work in which her role wasn’t acknowledged, or right after a political debate the two of you had over lunch … well, that might be your answer. If you figure it out, then you can decide if it makes sense to approach her and try to clear the air.
But if you don’t figure it out, you’ve got two options. One, of course, is to ask her about it. If you do that, you’d want to approach her in a way that’s respectful of her boundaries and doesn’t sound like you’re angry or deeply hurt. (You might be deeply hurt! But she’s allowed to pull back from social relationships at work, and you’re more likely to get a good outcome if it’s clear you recognize that.) You could say something like, “I might be misinterpreting, but have I done anything to upset you? You’ve seemed less comfortable talking to me lately and if I did something to cause that, I’d want to try to resolve it. I really value you as a colleague and don’t want to be unknowingly offending people!”
If she tells you that no, there’s nothing wrong, at that point you’d need to accept the answer, even if her behavior doesn’t change. You don’t necessarily need to believe that answer, but you’d have to figure that she has the right to change the nature of the relationship, as long as she’s being professional and not actively unpleasant. It will never be enjoyable for someone to become noticeably cooler toward you, but the best response is simply to respect her boundaries and behave professionally in return. In particular, make sure you don’t respond with chilliness yourself! It can be easy to fall into that response, especially if you feel hurt, but if you’re both being chilly it can escalate into something more problematic – and weirder and more uncomfortable for any bystanders. Be pleasant, just give her space.
The other option is to skip the conversation, accept that Zoe seems to want space from you, and give it to her. The benefit of this approach is that it really respects her right to set the terms on which she engages socially with you. The disadvantage is, of course, that it precludes you from finding out if you did something that upset her and from attempting to resolve it. Sometimes, though, simply recognizing and respecting the ways a person seems to be trying to reset the relationship – and not trying to push for answers or changes – can be an act of goodwill, and can itself help repair whatever went wrong. Not always, of course. But sometimes.
The good news is that once you choose one of these options, I think the situation will get somewhat easier. Zoe might not alter anything about her behavior, but hopefully you’ll have more of a framework for making your peace with the ways the relationship has changed.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.