Digital Manners: Can You Tell a Colleague To Nix Her Annoying Cellphone Noises?

Navigating the intersection of etiquette and technology.
March 27 2012 2:07 PM

Working My Nerves (Transcript)

Office etiquette on borrowing earbuds, email misspellings, and loud cellphone games.

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Farhad: I think she should deal with it. It’s not such a big problem. There are so many different kinds of noises at work. I think the real problem is the person who’s playing this game. That person should stop because you’re broadcasting to the whole office that you’re not working. But I don’t believe that this noise is that annoying that you should get so up in arms about it.

Emily: Well, maybe the letter writer can go to the colleague who plays Words with Friends and say, “Could I borrow your earbuds and stick them in my ear to block out the sound?” I have two differing opinions on these two situations.

We’ve been through this before. Annoying sounds at work truly do disrupt your concentration. There are many studies showing when you pop, pop, pop out of your focus, you not only lose that moment, it’s very hard to get back in. You’re right, announcing to the office “I’m diddling around” is also stupid. But this is an ongoing thing at work and I think she’s perfectly entitled to go in and say, “Can you turn the sound off your cell phone? I, and probably everyone else, can hear you’re playing the game and it’s disrupting my concentration.”


When you’re in a doctor’s office and there are kids getting their allergy shots I say suck it up. Put your own earbuds in, read a book, whatever. You just have to deal with it.

Farhad: I agree with you on that second situation. I kind of agree with you on the first one that it could be annoying but I just think that it’s a never-ending quest to get rid of annoying noises at work and there are lots of annoying noises that aren’t generated by machines.

I sometimes get annoyed by the sound of other people chewing, and you can’t stop that. You can’t tell people to stop eating or something. Or you might have a loud talker on the phone and they’re talking for work purposes. I think there are all kinds of things that people do at work that’s annoying and maybe you’ll get this person to turn off their pop, pop, pop sound but I bet that’s not the end of the annoying sounds.

Emily: As Dear Prudence, one of the most continuous lines of question I get is just over the chewing, humming, farting, burping colleagues. To some extent, yeah, you’ve got to deal with other human beings. But they have to deal with the fact if they’re doing something not work-related that’s preventing you from doing your work, if everyone eats lunch at their desk there’s a certain time of day where maybe you should leave if you don’t want to hear the chewing.

But if all day long people are not attending to the fact that they have to keep their personal sounds down, I think you’re entitled to say something if it’s truly affecting your productivity.

So my bottom line is in a public setting, forget it. There’s nothing you can do. At work, pick your spots but I think you’re entitled to try to get your work done.

Farhad: I agree with you on the public setting. At work, I think you can tell the person to turn off the game if you want, but you’re just going to get annoyed by the next annoying sound that comes along.