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.

Farhad Manjoo: Hey Todd, do you have a spare toothbrush I can use? I left mine at the gym.

Emily Yoffe: I’m Emily Yoffe, Slate’s Dear Prudence advice columnist.

Farhad: I’m Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo. And this is Manners for the Digital Age.

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Emily: Today we have a few questions from listeners who have encountered awkward digital dilemmas at work and aren’t certain how to handle them. Our first letter comes from a woman who doesn’t like to share semi-intimate items with colleagues.

She writes, “Dear Emily and Farhad, recently a co-worker came into my office and asked if she could borrow my earbuds. I’d never been asked this before so I hesitated for a moment, but did grab a pair I had in my iPod and handed them to her. She noticed my hesitancy and said, ‘I’ll clean them off before I give them back.’ While I didn’t need them at the moment, I still feel weird about someone else using my earbuds. It seems gross, kind of like we’re sharing a lollipop or a washcloth. Am I overreacting or was this an unusual request?” Signed, Wax On, Bug Off.

Farhad, what do you think?

Farhad: Oh, she’s not overreacting. This is totally weird and gross. I wouldn’t lend my earbuds to someone and I don’t think she should either.

Emily: We’re in agreement. I’m against the sharing of anything you insert into your body. We’re sitting here with headphones. I don’t even like putting the headphones outside my ears. I always put my hair over it because it seems like there are a lot of personal germs there. The thing about manners is when someone’s being rude, they approach you with their rude question and you’re too polite to say no. I think you have to say, “Hey, you know what, it’s just me. I just can’t share them.”

Farhad: Yeah. If she cleans them out, it’s probably not actually harmful in any way. But it’s just gross that it’s been in your ears and you’re going to want me to wear them after that.

Emily: I agree. They’re clean; they’re probably fine, but no. I don’t want you sticking my earbuds in your ears.

Farhad: Our next letter writer wonders whether it’s helpful or annoying to point out a glaring e-mail mistake. She writes, “Dear Farhad and Emily, a woman recently e-mailed me about a work matter and her signature says she is the staff analyst with the word ‘analyst’ spelled incorrectly. I have not met the woman but we have now e-mailed back and forth several times. Should I let her know about her misspelling? I would want to know.” Signed, Bad Spellers of the World Untie.

So Emily, should she let her know about the e-mail signature?

Emily: Oh man, I would want someone to tell me if my signature was misspelled. The word “analyst” in this is spelled “A-N-N” so there’s a possibility that this woman analyzes Anns. But that’s probably unlikely and I think it would be a kind thing to, next time they have an exchange, highlight in yellow the “analyst” and say, “I just wanted to point out to you, you probably want to correct that.”

Farhad: When I heard this letter, I couldn’t stop thinking of the show “Arrested Development” where the David Cross character was the world’s first analyst/therapist, in other words, an analrapist.

Emily: Well, maybe that’s what this woman is going for and she doesn’t need to be corrected.

Farhad: Yeah, I think this is like having something in your teeth. You really want to know and you really wish someone would’ve pointed it out before you went into a public space. I think if there was some question about whether this was a mistake, you might wonder whether you should tell her. But there’s no question here. It’s obviously incorrect and she probably wants to know.

Emily: And she will be very grateful that this woman pointed it out and it will cement their professional relationship.

Farhad: Yeah, I agree.

Emily: Our last letter writer is sick of the sound of cell phone games around the office and thinks the pinball wizards need to give it a rest. She writes, “Hello Farhad and Emily, what is the correct etiquette for cell phone noises? I’m not referring to ringing, annoying as that can be, but the sound of games. My cubicle mate enjoys playing Words with Friends on her cell phone. Several times a day I hear the game’s telltale pop, pop, pop, pop sound effect and it’s irritating. Similarly, I get allergy shots and I’m required to stay in the waiting room for half an hour to make sure I don’t keel over. A lot of kids also get shots and have to wait. Many of them play handheld games with the volume turned up. What is the proper response in these situations?” Signed, The Games People Play.

Farhad, what do you think?

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.

Emily: Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age. Our address is digitalmanners@slate.com

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

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

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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