Digital Manners: Your Ringtone is Driving Me Crazy

Navigating the intersection of etiquette and technology.
Dec. 6 2011 12:43 PM

Your Ringtone Is Driving Me Crazy! (Transcript)

Farhad Manjoo and Emily Yoffe debate the question: Is it OK to ask a colleague to put his phone on vibrate or change his ringtone?

Emily Yoffe:  Hey, Farhad, check out my new ringtone! Isn’t it awesome? It’s from Star Wars.

Farhad, where are you going?

Farhad Manjoo:  I’m Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo.


Emily:  I’m Emily Yoffe, Slate’s Dear Prudence advice columnist. And this is Manners for the Digital Age.

Farhad:  Today’s question is from a listener who has a beef with the guy in the next office. She writes, “Dear Emily and Farhad, my office has very thin walls, which unfortunately allow some sounds to pass through easily. One of these sounds is the ringtone of my coworker’s personal cell phone, which drives me crazy! It’s not so much annoying as it is distracting and pulls me right out of what I’m doing every time I hear it, which is several times a day. I have pointed out politely that it really travels, to which he replied, ‘Yeah, no kidding. I heard it all the way from the break room one time.’ Do I have any recourse here? Is there any cell phone etiquette about a ring that drives your coworkers crazy? For what it’s worth, the sound is supposed to be a light saber, but it sounds just like a rattlesnake to me. Since I live in Texas, I’m instinctively bound to jump out of my skin every time I hear it.” Signed, Rattled by Ringtone.

So Emily, what does your ringtone sound like and does it annoy all your coworkers?

Emily:  All ringtones are annoying. I refuse to pay for one. It’s like some demented Salsa dance. But I’m alone most of the time, Farhad, so no one calls me.

Farhad:  I call you every day, Emily.

Emily:  What’s your ringtone?

Farhad:  I agree with you. I hate all ringtones. My phone, 90% of the time, is on silent/vibrate mode. That works for me because I’m holding my phone 90% of the time so I can tell when it’s ringing.

Emily:  As you’ve told listeners, you sleep with your phone under your pillow.

Farhad:  Right.

Emily:  So maybe the vibration… Okay, we won’t go into that.

Farhad:  It’s soothing.

Emily:  Yeah.

Farhad:  I strive at all moments to keep it very silent, but it doesn’t sound like any more annoying than all of the other sounds you hear in an office all the time. The regular office phones probably don’t have the most pleasant ring either.

And then there’s fax machines beeping and the hum of the air conditioning system and people chattering. I can’t imagine that it’s any more distracting than all those other things. She should get used to it.

Emily:  I disagree with you. First of all, let me quote George Washington who, as we all know, spoke frequently about ringtones. He said, “In the presence of others, sing not to yourself in a humming voice or drum with your fingers or feet.” At the Continental Congress, who knows? Thomas Jefferson was probably driving him berserk with the salsa sounds.

Farhad:  Notorious drummer.

Emily:  Yeah, sure, there’s some ambient noise that’s not annoying, but there are certain kinds of sounds. She’s jumping out of her skin. This is an alarm kind of sound. And studies show when your concentration gets disturbed by something that’s alarming, it really does not just take you out of your work for a moment. You can’t instantly regroup and get back.

To me, the problem is a lot of people are too indirect. So she’s said, “Wow, your cell phone thing is really loud.”

“Yeah, it sure is loud.”

“Your cell phone ringtone is too loud. Can you turn it way down? Can you put it to vibrate? Could you put it on something that’s less disturbing? Unfortunately the walls are so thin, it sounds like a rattlesnake to me and makes me jump and it’s driving me crazy. I’m sorry.”

Farhad:  I agree with you. She should ask, and if he is polite, he would turn it down. Perhaps, if he’s even more considerate, then he might even consider changing his ringtone to something less ghastly.

But I do think that if she says all those other things like, “Your light saber ringtone reminds me of a rattlesnake and I get physically ill every time I hear it, she just might sound too dramatic and he might dismiss her.”

Emily:  She does have to be direct. She does have to say, “It’s too loud, and the sound itself I can’t get used to.” We talk about this sometimes week in and week out. Your annoyance and another person’s right to their various annoying activities, where’s the line?

This is about her office productivity. There’s no need to have a ringtone set on the highest ring. If he has it close to him, he doesn’t even need to have the ringtone on.

Farhad:  Maybe the problem is I can’t imagine being as freaked out about this ringtone as she apparently is.

Emily:  But you work alone, right, Farhad, most of the time?

Farhad: Yes. In fact, sometimes when our son is home (and he’s one and is never quiet) and I’m trying to work, it’s impossible. I just can’t work because he’s making sounds all the time.

Emily:  A washcloth in the one-year-old’s mouth. There’s the solution there.

Farhad:  Maybe if somebody had a one-year-old ringtone, that would drive me crazy also.

Emily:  If I’m working at night and my husband is downstairs watching one of his – there’s always some movie where someone is shoving an andiron in someone else’s head and explosive sounds. My concentration is shot just by hearing the background noise of his movies. To your husband, you can scream, “Will you turn that down?! You’re driving me insane!” You can’t say that in an office.

But I think if your concentration is being broken all the time, you have to do something about it.

Farhad:  Okay, Emily, this may be a first in the history of our podcast, but I’m going to change my mind and agree with you. When you put it that way, when I think about the stupid sounds that annoy me sometimes, when I think about it that way, then maybe this ringtone is of that variety to her. Maybe she’s right to go to the mat for this.

Emily:  On that note of triumph, we have to close out. I’m so excited. Thank you, Farhad.  Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age. Our address is

Farhad:  You can also join our Facebook page where we carry on the conversation throughout the week.  Go to

Emily:  And we’ll talk to you next time on Manners for the Digital Age.



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