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Shh! When a Coworker Makes Unreasonable Requests for Office Quiet

You're hard at work when a coworker says: "I can hear your breathing over there. Could you stop doing that?" Huh? Let's talk about the controlling coworkers who literally don't want to hear us at work!

Before we get started here, let me say that I won't be writing about the jingly-jangly jewelry wearer or the stentorian spit swisher, which are noises that we can control (read: eliminate) for the most part. Besides, we've covered those bases already.

No, today I'm focusing on the coworker who has pretty much told you to stop breathing, because she can hear it. And could you walk more quietly to the copier while you're at it? Until ambient habitat soundscaping arrives at work, you feel doomed to a standard of quiet that is impossible to attain.

The too-quiet office can contribute to our coworker's controlling quest for total office quiet, as could the open office environment that is packing us in like sardines and forcing us to watch our teammates clip their toenails. There is nowhere to go, and there is nowhere to hide from the hubbub of human behavior.

But our co-worker's request to type more quietly feels like too big of an ask. We type, therefore we are. Screw that noise.

A Step Above a Noise Problem
Many moons ago, when I was a young, highly-agreeable person, I rented an upstairs apartment. Not long after I moved in, my downstairs neighbor asked to speak with me. She said that she could hear me walking around my apartment.

I apologized and said that I would try to walk more quietly. Sorry about that!

But that wasn't enough for her. "Actually," she said, "I was wondering if you could stop walking around your apartment when you're at home so I don't have to hear it."


I didn't know what to say. Stop walking around my apartment? What if I need to use the bathroom, or make myself something to eat? Hey, I'm happy to help you out here by walking more quietly, but I can't just sit on my sofa wishing I could use the kitchen. Plus, the floors in this old apartment building are all sorts of creaky.

Looking back, there was no way that I could meet her goals of a sound-free ceiling. The problem could never be resolved, because I couldn't fly, or levitate. Navigating this issue made living there very uncomfortable.

When A Coworker Wants To Mute You
Now imagine such a scenario in the workplace. It feels like this teammate literally does not want to hear any sounds from you at all, ever. You are not wrong, because that is exactly what is happening here.


Whether it's hearing you breathe, walk, type or open a filing cabinet, this coworker's controlling nature toward the noises we all make is beginning to impact your work, and quite possibly your morale. Could you flip through those invoices more quietly? Thanks.

What can you do about these unreasonable requests?

First, you can try to accommodate this coworker to some extent. Maybe you can get a new keyboard, wait until she leaves the room to open your cabinets, and lose the flip-flops. We can all try to work with each other on these issues. Creating some ambient noise (a fan can work wonders) or investing in noise-cancelling earphones are two possibilities for quieting this coworker's noise complaints.

However, these steps might not be enough. In this case, it's okay to be direct. Tell this coworker that there are limits to how much you can stifle your work noise. Because you are human.

Typically, I suggest trying to work out problems one-on-one with a coworker without involving management, but this particular workplace problem might benefit from managerial input if it has you walking on proverbial egg shells every day. Raise it from the angle that you're trying to accommodate this coworker, but nothing seems to work so far. A good manager will talk to the employee, and suggest a few solutions.

You might ask to relocate to another work area far away from this coworker, too.

Bottom line: No coworker should be able to make unreasonable requests regarding your garden-variety noise. As long as you're considerate, you shouldn't have to be silent. I'll let you go file those invoices.


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