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Talk Talk 

Of cubicles, cell phones, and loudmouthed conversationalists

Wednesday, Jun 8 2005
Dear Social Grace,

I work in a cubicle atmosphere and am in the middle of two co-workers. They talk to each other without leaving their seats, and I'm disrupted by it. In addition, one of the co-workers will stand outside my cubicle and talk to the other co-worker, although I'm not involved in the conversation. She also frequently talks in a normal-to-loud voice to herself. I am a very quiet person and have a job that requires my complete attention. I find I am often disturbed and distracted by all the talk. I asked one day if she could go around to the other co-worker's cubicle and talk, as I was having to add figures over and over. For two days, she made snide comments about "doing wrong" and has since reverted back to her old behavior, if not worse. I'm not usually one to go to this extreme for advice, but quite frankly I am at my wits' end. I've looked into very expensive noise-canceling devices, but I think that would be unfair. Yet I am afraid at this point if I ask again, it will look like I am giving her a hard time, which is not my intent. What is the etiquette for cubicles? What should I do?


Dear Kristin,

Asking that you be allowed to do your sums in a quiet environment does not qualify as "giving [someone] a hard time" -- however, in many offices, you will have to endure voluble conversations about urgent work matters, even if they don't pertain to you. (You just can't expect silence from a room full of busy people separated by flimsy cardboard panels.)

Of course, anyone who has worked in a cubicle knows that many raucous workplace conversations are not about work but rather about local sports teams or the love lives of celebrity heiresses. If unnecessarily boisterous and/or non-work-related conversations are disturbing you, then you are in the "etiquette right." You can be direct and say, for instance, "These partitions are so thin -- would you mind going around to Myrtle's cube to continue your conversation? I'm sorry to have to ask, but I'm having trouble concentrating." (And, as with many on-the-job difficulties, consider discussing this problem with your manager.)

Being polite doesn't mean that you must let yourself be bullied. However, you seem to want two conflicting things: First, you want an insensitive co-worker to change her ways; second, you want her to like you. I'm afraid you may not be able to have both.

Dear Social Grace,

My ex and I were out for a walk and she was holding a conversation via text pager with someone else. Her employers gave her that pager in case they needed her, so responding to a page from her employer would be fine. Responding to her friend and saying she was busy and would talk to her later would be fine. But holding a 15-minute conversation as we walked, I felt, was rude.

I used to have a cell. I used to travel a lot for my job, and it was a necessity. I turned the darn thing off as often as possible and usually left it at home or in my car when I went out with friends. Am I old-fashioned or overly sensitive? I'd like to see you weigh in on this subject.

Via the Internet

Dear Old-Fashioned Madam or Sir,

Each day, more people decide that it's OK to use their mobile communication devices in the manner you describe, so perhaps you and I are old-fashioned. We remember, and long for, those sepia-toned days when a group of friends would meet at an appointed time and place (perhaps just for an hour or two) and then enjoy one another's company without letting the outside world intrude.

Those days may be gone forever. But just for the record, it is still impolite to have lengthy, nonurgent phone conversations (or [shudder] text-message exchanges) if doing so means ignoring the person you are with. When you enter a party or a restaurant with other people, for instance, you should usually turn your phone off.

If you are not, say, an on-call doctor or a parent with young children under a baby sitter's care, consider leaving the cell phone or messaging device at home. What I'm about to say may be difficult for some people to hear, but the vast majority of us do not need to be contactable all the time. Why, back when I was cutting my social teeth, people sometimes went as long as three or four hours without checking their phone messages -- with no lasting harm done.

Dear Social Grace,

A friend at my church has a serious case of Megaphone Mouth Disorder. I have been a pagan for over 35 years (not a problem in a Unitarian congregation), but I don't consider that anyone's business but mine. Still, Miss Megaphone has "outed" my religion to nearly a dozen people in casual contact -- waitresses, people in line for a movie, you name it -- she'll introduce me and say, "This is _____. She's a witch." Which I am not, incidentally.

I have seriously talked with her, both in private and in public in front of strangers at the moment she does this -- it does no good. She also knows I have lost jobs because of my private faith and have been physically threatened.

Sooner or later, Miss Megaphone is likely to find out that I am a lesbian, and her mouth will go into overdrive again. This woman is potentially putting people at personal risk, and confrontation -- kind or stern -- is not getting through. She just laughs it off. What can I do to get through to her, short of chirping back a response detailing her dirty laundry -- which would hardly be good manners!

The Late-Blooming Irish Rose

Dear Blooming Madam,

You know, this sort of thing used to happen to me, too. I'm not a pagan, but I do have friends who enthusiastically introduce me as an etiquette columnist -- even though I've mentioned that this fact inspires extreme anxiety in new acquaintances (who assume that I will start lecturing them on the proper way to use a fish knife). Etiquette writers aren't known for being fun at parties -- though I can promise you that we are (and we know how to properly handle our silverware, without being showoffy about it).

I dealt with this problem by learning to be proud of what was once my little secret, and finding new ways of putting people at ease with it. Admittedly, though, my private details are unlikely to put me in a dangerous position, as you fear yours will.

You're correct that any sort of "eye for an eye" behavior would only make both you and "Megaphone" impolite. When an acquaintance proves herself to be incorrigibly unpleasant, the wisest course of action is to have as little to do with her as possible. When the unpleasant acquaintance is a shameless gossip with whom you must be cordial (because she attends your church, for instance), simply limit your interactions with her to the bare minimum, and limit your conversation to the weather, G-rated movies you've recently seen, and church business.

About The Author

Social Grace


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