Help Me Cope With a Noisy Eater
September 25, 2012 9:30 AM   Subscribe

I have about three weeks to come up with a game plan on how I'm going to deal with a noisy coworker's return to our shared desk space. What would you do?

I work in an open office, and unfortunately for me my desk mate is someone with some pretty lax manners when it comes to eating at his desk. He frequently chews with his mouth open and eats many foods that make irritating sounds (and have super pungent odors). The smells I can deal with; the sounds, not so much. To combat this, I normally listen to music as loud as I can through earbuds as it cancels out the distracting sounds, but recently one of my supervisors asked me not to do this anymore as a) they can sometimes hear the music and b) the set up renders it difficult for others to get my attention. :(

Right now said coworker is away on vacation. We normally sit close enough to each other that I'm in a constant state of tension and now that he's not here, it's really evident that his presence is a source of stress for me. I'm twice as productive and so relaxed.

I don't want to resent this guy as he's a nice kid, so since he's away, this is my chance to figure out what I can do on my end so we can have a harmonious work experience together.

My options seem to be...

1. Try to gently tell my coworker that he's eating with his mouth open and smacking his lips when he returns and it happens again.
2. Invest in noise canceling headphones and explain to my supervisor that I need to use them because I have sensitive hearing and my desk-mate's eating is highly distracting/aggravating.
3. Lobby to change my seating assignment. This is the most coveted option, but also the one that would be the most difficult to accomplish as I am new (though valued) at the company I work for and getting my own space may be perceived as an attempt on my end to hinder collaboration.

What would you all recommend? What noise canceling headphones would you suggest I get? How would you phrase this situation to a supervisor? Are there alternative solutions to this issue?

There is a slight possibility that this coworker might move desks soon but it's not guaranteed so I can't bank on it. He's a loud enough eater that I will likely be able to hear him even if he moves a few spaces down.
posted by These Birds of a Feather to Work & Money (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Would squishy silicone earplugs be an option? It will still be difficult for others to get your attention, but it will eliminate the problem of others being disturbed by music.
posted by elizardbits at 9:34 AM on September 25, 2012

Move! Move! Use the vacation to explain to your supervisor that while you think deskmate is a swell guy, you've realized that his being gone has meant you don't have to listen to music (a previously pointed out undesirable behavior) to concentrate! Move!
posted by purpleclover at 9:35 AM on September 25, 2012 [12 favorites]

Do you have an HR person? I mean we don't particularly enjoy having conversations like this with people but, sigh, we absolutely will. If not, then yes you should bring this up with your supervisor. Eating in such a distracting way at your desk is something that needs to be addressed.
posted by magnetsphere at 9:44 AM on September 25, 2012

I don't understand. Don't you know that open-mouth chewing aerates the food for the true gourmet experience?

But seriously, I would speak with HR/a supervisor to speak with this person about their eating noises. Earbuds/earplugs treat the symptom, not the cause. And, if he does it loudly enough where it can be noticed from a few spaces away, you may not be the only employee disturbed by the sounds.

Would you be prepared to support a policy that eating at one's desk is banned? That may be a response that management gives. (and not one that I would necessarily disfavor)
posted by Tanizaki at 9:57 AM on September 25, 2012

Is there anywhere else in the office where your coworker can eat? Like a kitchen or lunch room?

A relatively low-conflict solution may be to (kindly and apologetically) tell him that you're just really sensitive to food noises and smells, in a way that isn't at all personal to him but has a big impact on your ability to work, and ask if he can eat his lunch in the lunch eating place. Obviously you'd also have to do so, if you aren't already.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:57 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Use the brown noise on and turn it up as loud as you want.

I find I can still hear people talking, but all of the soft S sounds that drive me insane are tuned out.

It is maybe the best thing ever in the whole world.
posted by skrozidile at 9:58 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Boss, since Loud Eater's been away, I've realized just how distracting his eating and noises are. We both want me to be undistracted, right? So how can we solve now? Here are my three ideas:
One -- I could tell him, 'Hey, you're really loud.' That's just going to get him annoyed and distracted too, right? And he'll probably just complain to you about it anyway.
Two -- you can get me some noise-canceling headphones. I've done some research, and it looks like low-end ones are around $100. That would be better than listening to music too loud, right?
Three -- you could move me, perhaps to this particular place in the office.
Now, me personally, I'd prefer option three, and here's why..."
posted by Etrigan at 10:04 AM on September 25, 2012 [6 favorites]

Option one, in my experience, doesn't work over the long term, as most people have an extremely poor understanding of how loud they're being at their desk. I don't eat loudly, but because of my background in piano, I type like a jackhammer!

I'd go to your boss with options two and three to choose from. How your boss answers depends on whether he/she sees a huge benefit in your sitting where you do, or sees it as a huge hassle to move you. If that happens, you need to have a plan B in your back pocket.

"Well, I can understand why having me close by would be helpful, but I can't really support you properly if I'm distracted all the time. What about moving me to location B? Or what about moving Sloppy Eater?"

If teamwork and collaboration are the issue, holding a weekly team meeting or some such should hopefully allay management's fears. Teamwork happens in more ways than just sitting together!
posted by LN at 10:30 AM on September 25, 2012

We have enormous cubes at our office, and I talk on the phone for about 5 minutes, once per day. Someone complained that I was TOO LOUD! (ME???)

The workplace is full of irritation. Personally, I don't think anyone should have to share a desk, it's barbaric. I too have that issue, I find the sounds of food consumption disgusting.

I'd start with asking for a move, don't make it about desk mate, just say, "Hey, that desk over there is empty, can I use it?" Only if you get pushback should you bring up any issues. Also, make it about you, "I'm claustrophobic, I work better if I can spreadout, there are fewer distractions, etc."

Maybe they'll move him. Either way, win.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:42 AM on September 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

Talk to the boss about seating rearrangement. We had someone in one of my workplaces do the same thing, and everything he ate was slurpy.


He only ate once per day, so I'd just get up and leave when he did. Talking to the boss is better.
posted by cnc at 11:07 AM on September 25, 2012

Choose a desk that would mean you weren't getting your own space, you'd be sharing with someone else who doesn't make food mouth noises. Talk to the boss, explain what's going on. Tell him/her if they'd prefer you not to move, you really need noise-canceling headphones and the permission to have white noise on. If you end up going the white noise route, I love simplynoise as well, and just stick a sign on your desk saying your on your headphones, to wave and you'll see them.
posted by arnicae at 11:58 AM on September 25, 2012

I empathize with you 1 million percent!! I'm in the exact same predicament. I sent a link for this post to one of my coworkers who asked if it was I that posted! I too have a cubemate who chews extremely loudly, mouth open, saliva sloshing around. He's infamous office-wide for this and how he doesn't know how gross this is, is anyone's guess. It also has been an enormous source of stress and anxiety for me. I too have wondered how best to get out of this situation. Unfortunately, complaints about the chewing have just made me look at best neurotic, at worst petty. Plus, due to a rapidly expanding company and people from all levels doubling up, there are very few spaces where I could actually move.

I have a few coping strategies. One, of course, is the headphones, however I feel like I'm actually damaging my hearing due to how loudly I have to turn up my music to block the noise. Less frequently, I attempt to time my leaving for lunch around the same time chewing is due to commence. This does not always work, as it seems like the days I use this approach are the days he (curses!!!) has a second lunch or a snack. Then, I'm caught off guard and back to anxious.

I have no better suggestions, but I'm going to follow this thread and I sincerely wish you the best in getting out of this situation!!
posted by zombiebunny at 12:08 PM on September 25, 2012

The hating people eating thing is really common for people with soft sound sensitivity syndrome, or misophonia.

I'd really, really discourage doing lots of research and talking to your coworkers and your boss about this. It is a fixation thing, and all the talk will just keep you fixated. Realistically, you are going to need to figure out how to deal with this issue because having your own pristine little sound space is not always going to work out, and I think admitting to having this kind of distraction problem at work could potentially be problematic for you if the boss does not get it (lots of people do not get it).

Recommendations from a past askme (including some from me again):
How do I get over my sensitivity to peoples tics
posted by skrozidile at 1:17 PM on September 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

While I agree with skrozidile above (essentially, just get over it) I will also propose another, fairly drastic solution: what if the rule was changed so that NOBODY is allowed to eat at their desk?
posted by CathyG at 3:03 PM on September 25, 2012

Response by poster: Advice suggesting I just get over it is misguided so please don't give it. It is not something I can just get over. Thank you.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 3:48 PM on September 25, 2012

Response by poster: Sorry, misguided sounds really rude. That kind of advice just isn't helpful because this isn't something I can get over. Thanks. :(
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 3:51 PM on September 25, 2012

Can you go grab your lunch and eat away while he's having his? Failing that, is there a reason you haven't asked him to close his mouth while eating? It's not really his fault if he doesn't know it bothers you, he may not even be aware he does it. It doesn't have to be rude, confrontational or embarrassing, you could just make a joke about it, and turn it into a running gag every time does it. It's a gentle way of letting him get the message without humiliating him.
posted by Jubey at 4:10 PM on September 25, 2012

Response by poster: He is on a special diet and he eats all day long because of it. I sort of thought he'd notice by now that whenever he walks over with food I immediately put my headphones on or leave, but it hasn't registered.

I am going to do a little reconnaissance to see if me moving desks would be feasible asap.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 4:53 PM on September 25, 2012

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