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Office Politics

Headphones anyone?
By Jhaleh Zaraweh

It's 9:30 and you've endured an hour of crackling and droning radio from the cubicle behind you. Or, your office neighbour's bass tones are coming through your shared wall and drowning out your own thoughts. Someone has her phone volume so high that you mistake its ring for your own, but she never seems to be in the office. The people whose voices were booming through the hall during their nearby meeting have been let loose into the hallway, idly chatting a few feet from your desk. You'd like to scream, but that would just add to the noise.

Office noise is unavoidable. Whether it's the hum of printers and shredders, people talking, radios or the traffic outside your window, it's hard to have complete quiet. It would have been nice if whoever designed the building added an extra ten inches onto adjoining walls, provided every office with recording-studio soundproofing and outlawed cubicles, but that wasn't in the budget. It may seem like there's a symphony of distractions aimed at you, but likely everyone else feels the same way.

Part of the blame for your noisy office goes to sound itself. It's persistent by nature and expensive to keep out. The guy who likes his a.m. radio and the woman who has an attention-getting voice probably aren't aware they're bothering anybody, because no one's ever had the nerve to tell them to keep it down.

Listening to music can boost some people's productivity, but it can be a source of suffering to others. If it's just the choice of music that's bothering you (why did you have to get stuck next to the person who genuinely loves country?), you could just close your door. Of course, if you don't have a door you either have to learn to love Conway Twitty or suggest some kind of compromise. If you work better in quiet, try asking your neighbour to lower the volume. If it's still a problem, maybe it's time to point him to a sale on headphones or pick up a set of earplugs for yourself. Or both.

Some people have booming voices. Usually, this isn't by choice - would you really want every off-hand hallway comment you make heard by the entire floor? For some reason, the louder the voice, the more likely that person is to have a job that requires spending a lot of time on the phone. This is tricky, because it's tough to complain about someone doing their job. Of course, if almost half the conversations you overhear (word for word) are personal, you have a legitimate complaint. The polite way to deal with that is by making a joke - at an appropriate moment - about the thin walls and asking that loud neighbour to keep it down. It might be more tempting to drop personal tidbits garnered from overheard conversations into regular, neighbourly chit-chat, as in "Hey John, heard through the wall the other day that your credit card is maxed out. Rough luck." However, this is less likely to have the desired effect and more likely to provoke your office mates into sabotaging your coffee.

Lastly, the old adage, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em!" is as true as it is grammatically painful. Sometimes the best way to drown out the office noise is by listening to the radio yourself, hopefully with headphones, and hopefully not country.