So there I was, at work trying to concentrate on a particularly tedious task, with a gaggle of coworkers nearby cackling so loud I couldn’t hear myself think. Another coworker was shouting into the telephone loud enough to be heard on the International Space Station. I was completely paralyzed and unable to work until he hung up the phone and the others finished their party break. But what could I do?
This is normally the place where an article gives advice on how to handle conflict. There are nice little bullet points citing the exact phrases to say to the other party, like, “Hey, I’m having a little trouble concentrating here, and as an introvert, I really need a quiet environment to work. So could I trouble you to lower your voice just a bit?” It sounds perfectly reasonable on paper.
It sounded perfectly reasonable when I said it, too. The only problem is that it didn’t work. Because unlike conflicts about other inconsiderate behavior, conflicts about inconsiderate talking are often intractable. People may be willing to police themselves about putting fish in the office microwave or not refilling the paper trays in the printer, but asking people to police their talking is often regarded as an unreasonable request.
In offices everywhere, it’s a request that can spark a war.
Constant Conversation Is the Expected Norm
In our extrovert-privileged society, talking in almost every circumstance is considered a human right. Suppression of talking is seen as a severe imposition reserved only for very specific places, like classrooms, churches, and auditoriums. Even then, talking may only be suppressed during the actual lesson, service, or performance. Afterwards, talking erupts like a geyser, as if everyone had been under water holding their breath and had finally been allowed up to the surface for air.
Our hyper-extroverted culture regards very few talking-related behaviors as inconsiderate. One of these is not talking, which can be condemned as “withholding” or “not contributing to the conversation.” Another far worse violation of etiquette is to ask others not to talk, or to modify the way they talk.
It’s as if you have asked them not to breathe.
Asking for Quiet Is Asking Too Much
It was not that my coworkers had been openly hostile to my requests to keep their voices down. Never did anyone just come out and tell me where to shove my precious concentration. Most often, at least initially, they would be apologetic and willing to comply. I would go back to my desk and could actually work.
Then a few hours later, there it was again. The phone rang and the bullhorn resumed broadcasting into the receiver. The party started again, and the squeals and howls forced the guy on the bullhorn to put a finger in his ear so he could hear the Space Station.
When I returned to the loud talkers and repeated my humble request, hands would fly up to mouths.
“Oh, was I loud?”
They were sorry. They forgot. And they would keep forgetting, every day, every hour, every minute. Because when they “got to talking,” they explained, it was impossible to remember not to get carried away.
Still, they were willing to cooperate in helping me resolve my need for quiet. The solution proposed would usually be something like this: “I can’t tell how loud I am. If I’m loud, just come remind me and I’ll tone it down.”
This was always the point when I knew the battle was lost. When people claim they can’t control what comes out of their mouths, then they are not responsible for it. This responsibility is handed to me. So if I wanted quiet, I would have to install a spring on my chair so I could keep jumping up and jumping up and jumping up to go police everyone’s talking. As the official office talking cop, I would soon be regarded as a nag, a killjoy, and eventually, a pariah. If I rejected this police duty, I would have no one to blame for the noise but myself, since I would be the one responsible for it.
The strategy was brilliant.
I Became ‘That Person’
My only remaining choice was the nuclear option — to betray every lesson learned at school and become a tattle-tale — taking my complaint to the boss. Yeah, I would be that person, but at least I would be able to do my job. Right?
My experience with managers has been as varied as the managers themselves. Some of them take the side of the talkers, explaining to me that people need breaks. Maybe I should take breaks, too. Somehow I suspect the word “introvert” was synonymous with “illness” in their minds.
Other bosses were quite sympathetic. One called us all into a meeting, laid down the law about quiet, respect for others’ concentration, and how we were getting paid to work, not to party. Everyone knew I was behind it. I became that person.
But miraculously, memory returned and people were able to catch themselves before “getting carried away.” Hearing also enjoyed a comeback, as people realized when they were loud and were able to moderate the volume of their own voices. My coworkers still took breaks in a gaggle, but did it in whispers or soft tones. My concentration was unleashed, and I was finally able to work.
Then, after a week, they would start to go deaf again and “forget.”
“I see,” the boss said from his private office. “But the problem is I’m not out there on the floor. Look, just let me know when they get out of hand, and I’ll come remind them.” So I was to call him, email him, or just get up and go get him.
Chair spring. Talking cop. White flag.
A Plea for Balance
Is there a solution? Obviously we need break rooms where people can take a break without disturbing others. And better ear plugs. But this alone is not enough.
There will never be a right to quiet until our culture values quiet at least as much as talking and noise. I don’t mean some joyless, dystopian society where laughter is banned and everyone has to tiptoe and whisper. I would like to see both noise and quiet valued in their appropriate times and places, and our need for both honored. I would like quiet to become as much of a right as noise.
Until then, the noise wars rage on, with the quiet forces too often waving a white flag. Quiet is an imposition, while talking and noise are our default setting and everyone’s right — everywhere, every time, all the time.
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