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Social Grace 

Work Jerks

Wednesday, Aug 1 2001
Dear Social Grace,

I need help with an office situation. I work in a cube environment, and my cube was created by putting up walls in a hallway next to conference rooms. The environment is very noisy because of two things:

1) People leave the conference rooms after meetings and talk ad nauseam about their vacations, fights they had with their spouse, et cetera -- basically stuff I don't want to hear about, sheer blather that's very distracting.

2) My cube is located next to a very, very loud woman. She loudly narrates her day to herself ("Oh, let's see, I have 17 e-mails"). She laughs loudly. She chews ice loudly. She screams from her cube for people who are down the hallway. She uses about three times as many words as she needs to when communicating verbally. She's on overdrive, so she's constantly speaking loudly and quickly. And she is a social hub, so many people come to see her. In a nutshell, I feel like my ears are going to start bleeding a few hours into each day. It's hard to get any work done, and it's making me very irritable.

I have spoken with my boss about a new cube location, but his response was to recommend that I take my laptop to an empty cube and set up shop there. I resented this, since it seems to make me the problem. I have resisted a temporary move to another cube, since it greatly inconveniences me. He is trying to work on a new cube location now, but when he suggested one this morning, it had distinct disadvantages. A side issue is that I don't feel he is fighting for my issues at all. He seems to look for the quick solution, whether or not it is the right solution. This seeps into the work that I'm doing in a big way. Any thoughts?


Dear Sighing Madam or Sir,

You've already taken the first step I'd recommend: You've gone to a superior and reported the problem. That you're not happy with his (perhaps reasonable) solution is too bad, though I agree that he could've handled this in a less wet-noodly way.

The noisy woman's supervisor is in the best position to correct that problem by telling her that she needs to keep her voice down. That said, it would not be incorrect for you to ask her politely if she could lower her volume. You might blame your area's "terrible acoustics" in an attempt to soften the request. However, you probably already know that no matter how well you ask her to change her disruptive behavior, she'll likely get defensive, and you don't want that. (It's been my experience that people who habitually scream at the office are the least likely to respond to a co-worker's requests for quietude.)

If your supervisor is uncomfortable with direct confrontation, ask him to consider sending a general-address memo reminding people that behavior in the office should be professional and voices kept low. But that message may not prove to be a permanent solution. If it fails, you have other options: Move to the space your supervisor chose, recommend another cube that does not have "disadvantages" (though I've never seen one without them -- we're not talking Pacific Heights penthouses here), or wear headphones or earplugs when you need peace.

The desire to create a "fun" environment has many workers believing that socializing is their primary purpose at the office. Supervisors are afraid of seeming too strict by enforcing standards of office behavior. But if your co-workers prefer to behave as if they were at a party while you sit quietly and get your work done, your move upward into a private office should be that much speedier.

Dear Social Grace,

I have a problem: I work with two guys who consistently have really bad breath. What can I do, other than try to stay as far away from them as possible? I thought about anonymously leaving Altoids on their desks.

Thanks a million!

Dear Nose-holding Madam or Sir,

In broad terms, a person's bad breath is not our concern unless we are on kissing terms with him. It's one of those things that a mere acquaintance cannot comment upon. Breath so bad that it impedes job performance? Well, it's hard to imagine. As for your gift idea, I'd reconsider: Anonymous packages and notes usually do more harm than good. If you can't give the gift in person (and I think we can agree that a tin of breath mints is a rather obviously insulting present), you shouldn't give it at all. If these guys have breath so atrocious that their manager agrees it takes away from productivity (and that would be some bad breath, indeed), he or she might say something. But in most offices another's bad breath is at worst a bearable nuisance.

Dear Social Grace,

I am in the enviable position of having two job offers. Suddenly, yesterday, I received the prospect of two more -- all are very desirable positions. In the best interest of my family, I must choose the position that offers the highest compensation and most comprehensive benefits package. How do I graciously stall for time without being unfair to prospective employers? Please advise.

Thank you very much.

Dear Enviable Madam or Sir,

One of the Social Grace records clerks will surely file this problem under W, for "Wish We Had Your." In answer, it's perfectly appropriate to ask prospective employers for time to think before accepting a position (assuming you've discussed salary and other details). In fact, they should expect it. Waiting more than a couple of days, though, may be excessive and could negate the offer. To avoid that possibility, agree on a reasonable deadline by which you will give your final answer.

About The Author

Social Grace


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