What is the etiquette for phones & ringtones in an office?
February 14, 2014 10:48 AM   Subscribe

I work in a co-working space with folks who all have their mobile ringers turned on with the shrill "rotary phone" ringtone turned all the way up. Please help me write an email to solve this.

I've worked with this group for about a year. They are all very nice, mostly older than me, in their late 40s to late 50s. I'm in my 30s and have always understood that ringtones should be turned off while in a tight office space. But these folks have been here for decades and are older and maybe haven't experienced that etiquette.

Basically some days it feels like I work in a call center, even though it's a bunch of freelance print designers sitting quietly on their computers all day. Even with headphones, those old timey phone ringtones are pretty jarring and distracting.

Is it wrong to write an email to the group? I'm a little too introverted to call a group meeting or anything. If addressing it isn't rude, how should I phrase it? It's intimidating because they've been here for decades and I'm definitely the new person. Thanks!
posted by critzer to Human Relations (31 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
How many of them are there, and do you know any of them socially? Would it be possible to speak to a few of them individually over coffee in the breakroom, or anything like that?
posted by ClaireBear at 10:51 AM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't have an issue saying that cell phone ringing was distracting to my work, and if people could be more aware of that, and maybe use their vibrate function, that would be helpful.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:54 AM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would not start with an email. You're the new person, so it could come off as "here are my preferences and I'm going to enforce them on the group".

I would start with whomever you feel closest to and ask if this issue has been raised in the past. Maybe informally, and verbally, see if anyone else is bothered by it. You can frame it as "at my other offices we were all instructed to set our phones to vibrate, so I'm not used to this, what do you think?" My husband once worked in an office where anyone whose phone rang out loud had to bring in doughnuts for everyone else, which is a fun way of changing habits.
posted by chocotaco at 10:55 AM on February 14, 2014 [20 favorites]

@claire: there are about 12 people and I know 1-2 of them socially, but basically everyone here seems a bit introverted and maybe sensitive too so it can be weird dynamic in which to confront anyone.
posted by critzer at 10:55 AM on February 14, 2014

How many people are we talking about?

I work in a bullpen office, within a larger office, which totals about 14 people (only three of whom have private offices with doors). Nobody expects anyone to silence their cell phone.
posted by Sara C. at 10:55 AM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Surely this is something that should come from the office manager. especially as the 'new person' it is not your place to change an established office environment is it?

Raise it with the office manager (or your boss) and ask them politely if there is some way that a guideline for ringer volume in the office could be considered. It's not up to you to dictate how the office should be, but it is up to you to raise productivity concerns for yourself with your manager.
posted by Brockles at 10:55 AM on February 14, 2014 [14 favorites]

(Sorry, just realized you said you've been there for a year. Revise my advice accordingly....)
posted by chocotaco at 10:56 AM on February 14, 2014

I would print out a nice "please turn your phones to vibrate thank you" note and tape it to the door.
posted by Jairus at 10:57 AM on February 14, 2014

Have you talked to your (and/or their) boss about it? This may be a fight that's been fought before, and you'd be better off not reigniting it. If you make a fuss out of it (and it's very easy to make a fuss over email without actually intending to), then it'll be the boss's responsibility to deal with anyway.

On preview, what Brockles said. Make it a productivity issue, not a "This stuff annoys me" issue.
posted by Etrigan at 10:57 AM on February 14, 2014

There are no office managers or bosses, just a bunch of freelancers. It's deliberately set up without any real hierarchy, just a co-shared space.
posted by critzer at 10:57 AM on February 14, 2014

I don't think you can really hope to change the policy of a shared space like this -- if I understand you correctly, these people aren't your coworkers so they don't have to care about your personal productivity.

It sounds like the cultural norm for this group / this space is to leave their ringers on. You might need to hunt specifically for a quiet coworking group / space if that's what you want, but that might be difficult to find since people who want quiet would generally work from home instead of seeking out a space with other people and their noises.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:03 AM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do you agree to any sort of rules when you take on a space there? Anything about noise, perfume, whatever? If not, you don't really have any grounds to force them to put their phones on vibrate just because it's what you're used to -- I would definitely not put up a sign, because they'll just figure out you put it up and wonder why you think you get to set policy. (It's also basically an empty threat -- you're putting up a sign when all it really is is you personally wanting it the way you want it.)

I'm not disagreeing with you on the substance -- I hate excessive noise also, but if you're the new person in this space, you're going to have a hard time telling them they've been doing it all wrong, and I would definitely not do anything that even suggests for a moment that you think that because they're in their 40s and 50s, they don't know how to put their phones on vibrate or "haven't experienced" everything that you have. It's likely just office culture, and one could just as easily say that because you're young, you haven't ever experienced a noisy workplace, which doesn't make having a noisy workplace incorrect.

In other words, my preference would be the same as your preference, but if the standard practice in a space you just arrived at is to do it differently and there's no central person who can mitigate disputes, you may be out of luck in enforcing your (our) preference.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 11:04 AM on February 14, 2014 [6 favorites]

I am an old guy who is in the middle of the range of folks in your office. I have bad hearing. I use an old phone ringtone so I can hear it. those old timey phone ringtones are pretty jarring That is exactly why I use it. I cannot tell you how many times I have had someone ask if that was my phone ringing when I used music or a much less harsh tone. I agree that if I was at my desk, I would put it on the desk on vibrate, but I don't always remember to do so.

It appears the established culture is to let them ring. I think you face an uphill battle fighting it. I think you should casually ask people when you are having a low key conversation, "Would you do me a favor and when you remember, turn your phone to vibrate or down. The ringtones in here are very distracting."
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:04 AM on February 14, 2014

Subject: Request

I'm having a tough time with sonic distraction in our shared space. If folks could put their cellphones on vibrate or at least turn down the ringers, I'd really appreciate it.

thanks critzer
posted by ottereroticist at 11:08 AM on February 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

There are no office managers or bosses, just a bunch of freelancers. It's deliberately set up without any real hierarchy, just a co-shared space.

I don't work in a coworking space, but I've spent a fair bit of time in them. As you've noted, there's no heirarchy - it's all just consensus and shared culture. The reality is that this is a space in which regular loud phone rings are accepted and normal. Some coworking spaces have a culture of avoiding phone calls in public areas; others don't. This is pure culture, and if you're the outlier who doesn't like it - and especially if you're new - I think this might just be a sign that you should keep looking for a new space to work in.
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:08 AM on February 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ask politely if they wouldn't mind putting their phones on vibrate or turning them down. If someone asked me this nicely, I'd do it, since I rarely pay attention to whether my ringer is on or not and have never customized my ringtones.

However, be prepared for them to not do it, to forget, etc. And there's not much you can do about that once someone says "I need to be able to hear my phone."
posted by futureisunwritten at 11:08 AM on February 14, 2014

This is probably obvious, but is there any reason why you can't wear earplugs, noise isolating headphones, or listen to music? That might be easier to change than changing the culture of this workplace, especially given it sounds like you're newish, there is no structure or hierarchy, and these folks aren't even your coworkers strictly speaking or invested in your professional success.
posted by ClaireBear at 11:20 AM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

@claire: I wear headphones mostly all day, both music and podcasts. Unfortunately those ringtones cut right through it.
posted by critzer at 11:24 AM on February 14, 2014

This bothers me, too, but it has helped to remember that in most offices, people's desk phones are ringing with a similar tone, and it's just part of being in an office.
posted by purenitrous at 11:25 AM on February 14, 2014 [13 favorites]

I'm laughing.

I used to work with an asshole. He was insufferable and the cherry on his shit sundae was his Mission Impossible ringtone.

So we used to call his cell all day long. We'd take turns, preferably waiting until after he was about 5 steps away from his desk. After a few days of this, it was turned down.

If you're friendly with these folks, you should be able to send an email that says, "Guys, I know it's a hassle, but the old-phone ring tone cuts right through me. Is it possible that you could turn down the volume of the ringer? Sorry I'm such a pain. I'll bring in some donuts on Monday to make up for it."

It may or may not work, but it's a nice way to ask, and donuts.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:38 AM on February 14, 2014 [23 favorites]

Are there any other coworking spaces available in your area? "What's your noise policy?"
posted by rhizome at 11:42 AM on February 14, 2014

Talk to the person who runs the co-working space and see if they will write the email/add a "put phones on vibrate" rule to the group policies.

This should come from the person collecting the rent for the desks, not you.
posted by amaire at 11:53 AM on February 14, 2014 [7 favorites]

If it's a co-working space, there should be some kind of regular meeting where decisions and conversation happen. That's when you bring it up, or have someone else bring it up for you and chime in. If there isn't such a thing, then rules are set from the top and you should talk to whoever is setting the rules.

I would suggest you ask the people around you first but I understand how difficult that would be for a very introverted person.
posted by michaelh at 12:19 PM on February 14, 2014

I don't think it's unreasonable at all and wish more people would speak out against noise pollution, everyone is so used to it now... I once worked with a guy I really liked socially who had his horrendous, intensely irritating radio on all day (so selfish and antisocial unless everyone was into it, which they weren't). I eventually made myself bring it up in the office. The good/surprising news was 3 people backed me up. The bad news was that it didn't change a thing. I then considered escalating it, but couldn't face it and didn't want to fall out with the bloke.

Good luck. I'm with ya.
posted by tanktop at 1:55 PM on February 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think what you're experiencing is that your colleagues came of age as workers when there were no cell phones--just desk phones, ringing that "old phone" ring all day long. It's something most people who worked in an office learn to tune out very quickly. So in their minds, those are their office phones and totally appropriate background noise in an office environment. As someone on the younger end of that age range, I actually find musical ring tones tremendously distracting but have no difficulty ignoring the classic ring. I guess you could bring it up, but I'd be prepared to not get very far.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 2:06 PM on February 14, 2014 [7 favorites]

You are paying rent to use the co-working space, correct? If that's the case, I would raise the issue with the manager of the co-working facility. If they are unable or unwilling to modify the policy, then you can start researching other co-working spaces.

It's not unusual for co-working set-ups to have Quiet Zones (e.g., a separate room). Perhaps you can find a place that does.

Also: there's pretty much no excuse for people having their ringers turned up. If they want to be considerate, they can have them on vibrate, and have the phone somewhere on their body, or in their line of sight. (And I say this as someone who is hard of hearing -- it's actually easier for me to note when my phone is ringing when it's on vibrate vs. with the ringer on. And I'm sure not going to impose my lack of hearing on a group by turning the ringer up to 11! That's just selfish.)
posted by nacho fries at 2:28 PM on February 14, 2014

But these folks have been here for decades and are older and maybe haven't experienced that etiquette.

Sorry homes, to me, this means they get to set norms, not you. Especially as lots of them are doing it. I would value workplace harmony over making the request; use in ear earphones that will block more noise, or be prepared for people to ignore your request and think less of you for it (iunfairly).
posted by smoke at 3:11 PM on February 14, 2014

Sorry homes, to me, this means they get to set norms
Seconding smoke's comment above because it is also possible they believe a rotary phone ring is just standard office noise and everyone is able to easily ignore it.
posted by variella at 3:58 PM on February 14, 2014

Like Ruthless Bunny, I worked with someone who was a jerk about his phone. Unlike RB's coworker, my officemate was a thoroughly nice guy and one of the finest people I ever met. However, he was a complete jerk about leaving the ringer on and then LEAVING THE PHONE ON HIS DESK WHEN HE WENT TO A MEETING. And his wife would call him repeatedly, like every 5 minutes, if he wasn't answering. The point here is that even really kind and respectful people can inadvertently be jerks because they don't realize that what they are doing is a problem.

In our case, we simply asked him to use the silent mode. He apologized and tried hard to remember to always turn the ringer off when he reached the office. He did his best and we forgave the occasional lapse.

Politely communicate your needs and hope for the best.

And yeah, donuts.
posted by 26.2 at 4:05 PM on February 14, 2014

If you have regular meetings then you could ask that the matter be added to the agenda, then it can be discussed and you will most probably find vocal allies who up until then had not given the issue much thought.
posted by mattoxic at 5:40 PM on February 14, 2014

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