How can I stop 'letting' my coworkers bother me?
September 21, 2005 8:02 AM   Subscribe

How can I stop being bothered by little things at work? There are some things my coworkers do that drive me nuts, but they aren't the sort of things you just ask people to stop doing.

About three months ago, I started my first job out of college. It's a smallish company, without enough cubicles or 'proper' offices for everyone, so I was put in a room in the back with one other person.

I don't have much a problem with him, as he's generally very quiet. Like most of the people here, though, he eats his lunch (and a snack in the afternoon) at his desk. I don't know whether or not it's just me, but it seems like he chews very loudly.

In the office next door (though there aren't any doors, just doorways) is a guy who seems to spend all day just sniffling and snorting (imagine the sound someone makes when they have a cold and sniffle, then amplify it a little). This is something that's always driven me insane.

More recently (in the last month or so) a third person was hired and also put in the same back room as me. His desk is along the third full wall in the room, which puts his chair (and him) about two or three feet behind me. Other than a small bit of the sniffling, he doesn't overtly do anything to annoy me; rather, his simple presence there drives my stress level through the roof (I feel much more relaxed on days/hours he's not in).

I know these aren't the sorts of things you can just ask people to stop. After all, I can't very well ask the "new guy" (he's easily 30 years older than me, and would probably 'outrank' me if titles/hierarchy were clearly defined) to stop working at his desk. The sound of other people typing really gets to me (and has since college), but it's not an option to try to get people to stop typing.

What's a good way to stop letting myself get annoyed/stressed at these things? Is it as unreasonable as I think to be bothered so much by all this?
posted by Godbert to Work & Money (42 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Get headphones. If you're already fixated on a noise, in my experience there is no way at all to kid yourself into thinking it isn't there. I had this problem with a noisy-eating flatmate. I hated myself for being so bloody anal, but it ended up so that I just couldn't stay in the same room as him while he was eating. Seriously - blocking it out is the only option.
posted by bifter at 8:09 AM on September 21, 2005

Does your office environment allow you to listen to music while you work? It seems all your annoyances are the sounds that people make while doing their daily routines... pop in a CD or fire up the iPod and ignore it all.
posted by Robot Johnny at 8:10 AM on September 21, 2005

Headphones. When the people around me start to get to me I just blare some White Stripes or Zeppelin to shut it out. Then again, my job is pretty brainless, so it may not be a possibility for you. You don't have to do it all the time, just when it gets intolerable.
posted by Idiot Mittens at 8:10 AM on September 21, 2005

For the noisy situations, can you wear headphones at the desk?
posted by jmd82 at 8:11 AM on September 21, 2005

Is it an option for you to wear headphones while you work? An iPod and some noise-cancelling ear-buds might do wonders for your sanity. I know they help me in the labs at school.
On preview: dammit. Well I fourth fifth the idea anyway.
posted by Who_Am_I at 8:12 AM on September 21, 2005

Sorry for the repetition.
posted by Idiot Mittens at 8:12 AM on September 21, 2005

Earbuds. Earplugs. Fan.

To the extent you can take your mind off of your surroundings, do. I often get annoyed at these sorts of things on long bus rides, and they can wreck the ride. It's amazing how helpful it can be, even if you can still sort of hear this stuff, to have it muffled or partially blocked.

If you get earbuds go for the higher end $50 sony ones - they work well for me to block the noise of the NYC subway (LOUD) while listening to quiet music.

Also, reduce your stress level generally - exersise, diet, contemplation, whatever works - as these things are probably tipping-point inputs that aren't actually causing your stress, just setting it off.
posted by lorrer at 8:13 AM on September 21, 2005


On preview, I'm not kidding.
posted by neilkod at 8:14 AM on September 21, 2005

Response by poster: I've been meaning to try headphones and some music, but I keep forgetting to bring both. That said, however, headphones were how I tried to stay sane in college when my roommate had an old IBM clicky-key keyboard that I could swear had an amplifier. The problem was that to drown out the noise, I had to have the volume up so loud as to drown out the sound of my own thoughts. Low enough to think meant that I could hear the other noise, too.
I was hoping for some other answer, I guess, but I'll give headphones a shot here.
posted by Godbert at 8:16 AM on September 21, 2005

Get a comfortable pair of ear defenders. Can be used in conjunction with earplugs if needed. I can't get anything done without wearing mine.
posted by teleskiving at 8:20 AM on September 21, 2005

Try classical music or electronica (if you haven't already). I find that I can listen to either VERY loudly and still think well enough to write, even when other music or noise would distract the hell out of me. They also are lush enough to drown out other noises pretty well.
posted by occhiblu at 8:20 AM on September 21, 2005

Welcome to the workforce -- it's going to be like that all your life. After a couple years, you selectively filter out these things.

Take it as an incentive to perform an early carreer change.

Not kidding. Escape while you can.
posted by NewBornHippy at 8:22 AM on September 21, 2005

There have been at least two other AskMe posts about pet peeves such as yours - posters that were driven crazy by people that sniff constantly or eat with their mouths open. You should definitely read them; you are not alone. Those threads are chock full of people commiserating with the original posters, and are actually pretty entertaining.

That being said, the same things that bother you bother me. I have to leave my office and go elsewhere when the woman that works with me comes back from lunch every day. She has some kind of a sinus thing where every time she eats, her nose runs for about 15 minutes afterwards, and she sits at her desk and makes the most nauseating, very hearty sniffing noises. I've bought her boxes of tissue and placed them unceremoniously on her desk (for which she's thanked me), but she never uses them. She just likes including me in the phlegmy sounds of her rearranging and then swallowing all of the mucous in her nose, I guess. I'm making light of it (because it's 2 hours before lunch!) but it's really disgusting. Luckily we have an empty office here so I retreat to that one and continue to do my work.

I too get annoyed by people who eat with their mouths open, or basically, just people that make a lot of noise, no matter what that noise might be. People who breathe really loudly? Check. People who talk really loudly? Check. People who bang really loudly on their keyboards for long periods of time? Check. People who constantly sniff, eat with their mouths open, loudly snap their gum, etc etc etc? Check. What it is is this - I can't stand other people invading my space with their noises. I'm really a pretty quiet and unobtrusive person, and I guess I just wish everyone else was the same way. I'll bet you're quiet too?

Is it as unreasonable as I think to be bothered so much by all this?

Yeah, I think so. I've thought about this a bit. The things that bother me, other people don't even notice, or if they notice, they don't care - they let these minor things sail over their heads. Some of us can't do that. I don't know why.

I have never met another person, ever, who was bothered by sniffing and loud gum chewing etc, the way that I am. In person.

When did these things start to bother you? Were you still a child? What do you do when these things happen? Do you stew quietly to yourself? Mumble under your breath? Bang your fist on your desk? Go apeshit? For me, earplugs don't help (I spend a lot of time on the phone so they aren't even really an option).

After a couple years, you selectively filter out these things.

That's an eternity to Godbert, I'm sure. I know it is to me!
posted by iconomy at 8:29 AM on September 21, 2005

In the office next door (though there aren't any doors, just doorways) is a guy who seems to spend all day just sniffling and snorting (imagine the sound someone makes when they have a cold and sniffle, then amplify it a little). This is something that's always driven me insane.

No real advice, but I sure as hell hear you on this one. I think I work next to this guy's evil twin. Snorting, sneezing (with accompanying footstomp(!), wheezing, sniffling, and sometimes a combination of the above. It's enough to make me want to erect some kind of plastic bubble to work in, or jump over the cube wall and beat him to death with a box of tissues.

(What do those noise-cancelling headphones go for these days?)

If you can, get away from the office for lunch. I found that once I stopped doing that, my level of frustration with the stupid crap my co-workers do skyrocketed.
posted by Vervain at 8:33 AM on September 21, 2005

Here are the two threads I was talking about.
posted by iconomy at 8:35 AM on September 21, 2005

I have never met another person, ever, who was bothered by sniffing and loud gum chewing etc, the way that I am. In person.

We should get drinks sometime.

I resorted to headphones when I moved from a job that had a private office (and I could still hear mucus man next door) to a cattle pen situation. They work to some degree but I still have to take a walk around the block when my neighbor languidly chomps through his daily bag of carrots. And yes, very loud Beethoven allows you to block out the world and still think.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:42 AM on September 21, 2005

As someone else said: welcome to the working week, dude. I spent the first five years of my working life in a permanent state of outrage and depression at the endless quotidian impositions and annoyances of the office. After three years of sheer mad joy at University I was appalled to realise that this was going to be it from now on. But it was; it is. People are just the most damned annoying things on the planet and they don't get much more annoying than in the office. It won't ever change, I'm afraid.

Headphones if you're allowed them; earplugs if not. Or you could try my method: regular heavy drinking and throwing fits of compensatory rage on internet message boards. :-)

Oh yeah - and take holidays whenever and wherever you can. And use your full sick day allowance every year. Work is hell: never make the mistake of caring about it too much. That helps a lot. Aside from that there's little good news, I'm afraid. Sorry.
posted by Decani at 8:43 AM on September 21, 2005

Noise-cancelling headphones work the best for me-- most times I don't even have to have the music on if I have the noise cancellation on. Yay white noise!

Regarding the coworker who's mere presence makes you stressed out-- is it a social thing? I have social anxiety and I know having someone that close to me at work would freak me out too. Do you feel anxiety around the fact that he might be watching you work? If you are having anxious thoughts more often than not, that might be a sign that something is really wrong. Maybe a few sessions with a counselor would be worth looking into?

You might want to look into Mindfulness Meditation as well. John Kabat-Zinn has some really good guided meditations and books on this. There is one meditation that instructs you to hear sound as just sound and not as any particular thing or from any source. This meditation had a remarkable affect on the way I look at life in general, and has been incredibly freeing in that I can direct my mind to hear things a certain way if I choose to. I hope this doesn't sound too new-agey or anything, I'm just letting you know what worked for me. I'm a hard core science nerd, and started meditating as part of a clinical trial that I was a subject in, so it is being tested scientifically. Good luck.

(on preview: vervain- You can get a decent pair of noise cancelling headphones for $30-50US)
posted by sarahnade at 8:43 AM on September 21, 2005

Welcome to the workforce -- it's going to be like that all your life.

Amen. Try working for the Federal Government and a little sniffling would be the least of your worries.
posted by fixedgear at 8:44 AM on September 21, 2005

Huh. I hadn't ever seen those other threads before.

I'm not bugged by normal gum-chewing, nose-sniffing, food-eating noises (and am, in fact, guilty of some of them), but excessive noises of this sort are annoying.

What really drives me nuts, though, are the people who have to have constant stimulation. My younger brother has some sort of ADHD, I think. He has to constantly be tapping a foot or banging a desk or humming or something. If we're in a room together working quietly (we work together), I'm almost certain to be driven nuts because he's tapping his pencil on his desk or something.

I have another friend who can not sit still. He, too, has some ADHD problems, I think, because he cannot sit still for longer than ten seconds. He has to pace, or to do something with his hands, or to talk, or something.

People who cannot be still bug me, people who always have to be fidgeting. I don't mind the occasional sniffing and snorting and smacking, though.

p.s. I thirteenth the suggestion of using headphones.
posted by jdroth at 8:57 AM on September 21, 2005

I've got the same problem. For me, it manifests as the feeling that while I'm going out of my way to be polite and not bother anybody, everyone else is denying me the same courtesy. It's basically an irrational feeling, because as you point out, none of these things that bother us are considered rude behavior, it's just that our threshholds of annoyance are way too low. I suppose that understanding that is useful, but it doesn't seem to get rid of the problem, does it?

Headphones are okay, but in the long term not a perfect solution -- they keep you from hearing the things you need to hear, like the telltale footsteps of your boss approaching.

I'd try finding ways to increase the ambient noise in the environment, because it's the difference between the silence of the room and the noise of your co-workers that is bothering you. A fan, or maybe even a radio playing at low volume, if that's acceptable where you work. Open a window, if you've got one.

I would put some credence in the suggestion that the effects of this behavior will decrease over time. Like you, I haven't been working long enough to really test the hypothesis, but people in the Army, in prison, or who are married to a loud snorer tend to get used to it. My mom says that she finds it harder to sleep when my dad isn't there sawing away. I don't know.

Perhaps, rather than simply being diminished by exposure, it's that the problem goes away once you become more comfortable with the people around you, and you stop feeling subconsciously (if you're anything like me) that they're doing it because they're jerks. If you know them better, you'll find it easier to ignore their behavior.

That, or get a new office.

If you solve your problem, please tell me how you end up doing it. :)
posted by Hildago at 9:02 AM on September 21, 2005

I don't think it's unreasonable to be annoyed by your co-workers, but you seem to be bothered by small, sharp sounds more than most people. I worked with a woman who had the same problem -- and who had also been diagnosed with OCD. If you can't make the headphones work for you and if you plan on staying in the corporate world, then I'd suggest talking to a behavioral therapist about ways to become less sensitive to outside stimuli.
posted by junkbox at 9:03 AM on September 21, 2005

I use headphones and a "waterfall" nature-sounds CD. I can't work and listen to music at the same time, but the sound of falling water is relaxing enough that it actually improves my concentration. I crank the volume up to max, which is not deafeningly loud, but still loud enough to drown out people talking, annoying ringtones, etc. In another office, where they played music over speakers, I maxed out the volume and used earplugs as well. A bomb could have gone off next to me and I could still blissfully work.

As an added bonus, the sound/feeling of the headphones are one of those psychological flags that tell me "stop screwing around, it's time to work now."
posted by PlusDistance at 9:11 AM on September 21, 2005

I wrote one of the two original threads above. 18 months later here's what I've found out. At least for me, the reactions you're describing are/were related to pre-existing stress. The most effective things I've done were to a) find out about and treat my sleep apnea and b) go on anti-depressants c) 'Cognitive Behavioural Therapy', which didn't deal directly with these issues but did help me identify them as a stress (or depression) reaction and gave me some tools for understanding them better.

Just FYI: I was in exactly the same position as you some 15 years ago. I basically got angry and upset about the noises, got headphones, moved desks, etc. None of that ever made the problem go away. I'm not sure a, b and c above will either, but I do seem to be coping a bit beter these days.

Take a good hard look at how much stress your under, or whether you've got a low level mental health issue (and I mean that in the best possible terms, really), or otherwise regular old health issue. You'll probably live if you don't do these things, but could be a lot happier if you do.
posted by daver at 9:19 AM on September 21, 2005

Not sure if anyone's mentioned these, but instead of a fan you could get a "white noise" machine. Therapists often use these in waiting rooms to drown out any sound of conversation.

The quality of these differ, I would stay away from the digital versions which are essentially sound loops. I've found these can be more distracting.

I would get the actual white noise machine, strangely enough the best price for these online can be found at an Arthritis store, Ebay would probably be good too.
posted by jeremias at 9:24 AM on September 21, 2005

Response by poster: iconomy: When did these things start to bother you? Were you still a child? What do you do when these things happen? Do you stew quietly to yourself? Mumble under your breath? Bang your fist on your desk? Go apeshit?

I think they first really started bothering me (to the point where I felt that I might actually try to beat someone up for it) was about midway through college (about two or three years ago, now). Loud breathing, though, has bothered me for easily ten years (I'm 22 now). I usually stew to myself; I'll clench my fists, twitch a muscle or two in my arm, things of that nature.
Oh, and thanks for the links. I did a quick search but didn't turn up either of those. Maybe you, CunningLinguist, and I should all get together for drinks.

Hildago: For me, it manifests as the feeling that while I'm going out of my way to be polite and not bother anybody, everyone else is denying me the same courtesy.

That's exactly the feeling I have. I'm a very quiet person, and despite not at all being religious, I tend to believe in the idea of "do unto others as you would have done to you." I make a concious effort to eat/breathe/walk quietly (I tend to sneak up on people, without really trying to), unwrap things very careful to do it quietly (sometimes I'll spend a few minutes undoing some velcro, just to avoid the brief bit of noise), turn down music when other people are on the phone, turn the lights off when other people are going to sleep (these last two are mostly college things), and it bothers me to no end when other people don't do the same.

sarahnade: Regarding the coworker who's mere presence makes you stressed out-- is it a social thing?

I'm not sure what it is. Having to deal with roommates throughout college taught me that I can't stand spending long periods of time in a small room with a person. It's been especially bad with my last college roommate (who never, ever talked or left the room) and this new guy at work. I'm a little bothered when I'm using my computer and it's my girlfriend around, but that feels more like I'm annoyed that I'm using the computer instead of doing something (a game, talking, just sitting, etc.) with her.
posted by Godbert at 9:27 AM on September 21, 2005

What about workplaces where you're not allowed headphones (I must answer the phone) and cannot have fans or music on your desk?
posted by agregoli at 9:28 AM on September 21, 2005

Perhaps a desk fountain could contribute to the noise-blocking.
posted by leapingsheep at 9:37 AM on September 21, 2005

I don't have any suggestions other than to say that I can relate. My sister's chewing drives me nuts - it's cow-like and I feel terrible eating around her. I can't be the only one who notices! And the woman who snickety-clicks behind me with her clunky high-heels? I let her pass and wonder if she realizes how loud her shoes are. I get the same I-sense-your-presence-near-me-and-I-don't-like-it feeling with the woman standing on the bus who doesn't realize how close her butt is to my shoulder while I'm sitting. And I day dream about shoving the person who backs up into my space in the elevator when there is clearly enough room in front of her to move forward. Quit crushing my personal space! And yes, I am a quiet person.

On preview: daver might have something with the stress thing. I've been grinding my teeth at night lately (one of my signs of stress) and the examples I gave above just happened today.
posted by KathyK at 9:38 AM on September 21, 2005

This is why I decided to become a lawyer. Well, not the entire reason, but definitely one of them. You'll never sit in a cubicle again.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 9:59 AM on September 21, 2005

What's a good way to stop letting myself get annoyed/stressed at these things?

Framing the question in these terms is a good first step. It is your own issue to manage. And you can. I've been in the same situation, and it's always eventually passed. You get worked up about the little annoyances until your ire is making you miserable, and at some point you just let it go for the sake of self-preservation. Do what you can for cover-sounds. Headphones. Get one of those corny zen fountains for your desk. And deliberately focus your attention elsewhere. The sound of music or whaetver doesn't actually need to completely overpower the annoying sounds, just defocus your attention from them a little bit. If you're concentrating on your work, your attention will get sucked away from the annoyances with a bit of white noise and some effort. This is a mental exercise which will require some focus and effort. Don't give up if it doesn't work straightaway. You may have to really try.

You might also try to socialize more with the people who annoy you. I find that I'm willing to forgive TONS of pecadillos from people I care about, but relative strangers get no slack from me at all. Get to know them better. Be friendly with them. It might help.
posted by scarabic at 10:01 AM on September 21, 2005

Agree, agree, agree with daver. The difference between "I'm not fond of the sound of whistling" and "I irrationally want to hack the perfectly nice whistling maintenance guy into a smoldering pile of gooey bits" is directly related to my stress level and happiness with the non-work parts of my life.
posted by desuetude at 10:02 AM on September 21, 2005

Some tips about headphones from someone who's been using them for a decade in order to maintain steady employment:

1. Keep cheap headphones at work, even if you have nice headphones. That way you're not distraught if they vanish, break, etc. and you're not completely screwed if you forget to bring in your Good Headphones.

2. If you don't have a type of headphone figured out yet, think a bit about your day. If you ever wear a headset for phone calls, earbuds are probably your best bet. If you want your headphones to signal that you're concentrating and people should leave you alone, make 'em more flashy.

3. Make sure they turn down and/or mute easily, and never turn them up so loud that other people hear them. Because....

4. There may be that one person who will think your earphone wearing is weird, or strange, or hostile, or unfair in some way they may or may not be able to articulate. Your goal in the beginning is to demonstrate that you are every bit as accessible as before -- the earphones are there to help you focus when you need to.
posted by gnomeloaf at 10:20 AM on September 21, 2005

I often wear headphones, those little crappy iPod buds, but don't have music playing. So, I can still hear what's going on around me (albeit a little muffled), but my brain blocks out the excess stimulus because it thinks that it's listening to something through the headphones.

(For the record, this is also a great way to people listen on the bus. Even if you're staring right at them, they think you're zoned out on music, instead of listening in on their domestic argument/political discussion/drug deal)
posted by spinifex23 at 10:39 AM on September 21, 2005

Any ideas when you can't have devices like fountains, fans, or headphones?
posted by agregoli at 11:04 AM on September 21, 2005

There's a really great book called Don't sweat the small stuff. I highly recommend it.
posted by randomstriker at 12:23 PM on September 21, 2005

I'm with you 100%. I've often wondered why I am this way. I know it's unreasonable to be so intensely bothered by such little things, but I absolutely cannot tune them out. And not only am I bothered, sometimes I get mad. Does anyone else get mad at loud noises? If someone sneaks up behind me and claps their hand sloudly in my ears? Instant MAD. I actually feel myself bristle. The worst part is that it takes me a few minutes (or 20) to recover.

Have you ever heard of HSP? Mostly it's a load of crap, but the description seems to fit most of us pretty well. (Sorry if someone already mentioned this.)
posted by crapulent at 1:00 PM on September 21, 2005

Godbert, I know you are trying to be considerate, but please DO NOT open packages and unrip velcro slowly! Not only does it NOT make less noise, it prolongs the torture for those of who can't stand that sound!

Seriously, we are all guilty of these annoying habits and mannerisms. For the most part, none of us realize that we are doing them. I grit my teeth because one of my colleagues whistles tunelessly, another one hums, and yet another likes to unwrap and eat crunchy food verrrryyyy slowly. But then I found out I'm a sigher, which drives Tuneless Whistler crazy.

But how to deal with it? My ability to deal with "Wally's 101 Annoying Cubicle Sounds" is directly related to my stress level. My job is pretty dull and doesn't really keep me mentally engaged, so I tend to obsess about Tuneless Whistler, HummingMan, and CrunchyCandyGirl when there's nothing else to distract me. Listening to music with headphones or using earplugs works well (I think the white noise or nature sounds are a good idea). When I'm busy, then I barely notice. (for example, I just realized that CrunchyCandyGirl has been eating for several minutes and I just noticed it. Thank you AskMe for providing mental stimulation!)

Talk to your supervisor and say you've realized that you need absolute silence in order to work. Or see if you can telecommute. If all else fails, find another job.
posted by luneray at 1:53 PM on September 21, 2005

When I was in cubes, shared offices and regular offices with thin walls, my solution was always a combination of music and a small desktop fountain.

However, minor sounds never bothered me as much as what you're describing.
posted by I Love Tacos at 2:43 PM on September 21, 2005

One other quacky suggestion... yoga.
posted by I Love Tacos at 2:46 PM on September 21, 2005

Headphones or earplugs.

The types of things you mention drive me batshit too, but you simply cannot ask people to stop doing them. It's like asking them to stop being human while they're in the room with you - not reasonable.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:13 PM on September 21, 2005

I use in-ear monitors (professional-quality earbuds), which seal out a lot of sound even without music, although I usually play some mellow electronica, or something else that isn't too distracting. Of course the downside is having to take them out to use the phone.

Noise cancelling headphones typically work best for constant, low- to mid-frequency noises like jet engines, and not so well for intermittent and higher-frequency noises like sniffing, typing, and nail clipping.

If headphones or ear plugs are not practical, you could try "white noise" as mentioned above. There are various hardware and software noise masking systems available - search for "sound masking" and "acoustical privacy" for ideas. You could run the noise software on your computer speakers, start quietly and turn it up very gradually over a couple of weeks, and your coworkers might not notice. Good luck!
posted by one at 7:21 PM on September 21, 2005

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