Monday, December 03, 2007

Why I wear earplugs at work

I keep a pair of squishy foam earplugs at work. They have some fantastic industrial rating, and when I wear them, I can't even hear my keyboard as I type. Clearly, I'm not working with a jackhammer or a high-powered blender. So why do I wear them, in my pleasant office setting?

Because I work about ten feet away from someone, who, like Nature, abhors a (conversational) vacuum and so fills it all day long with talk.

I try to remind myself that he does a good job, that I'm glad he's here, that he's a pleasant, dedicated worker. If I were shipwrecked alone on a desert island, I'm sure I'd grow to miss his constant chatter. But it might take a few years.

I try to just concentrate on my work, and sometimes that's enough. But sometimes I just can't shut him out.

"Would a brown bear really kill a grizzly bear? Don't they know they're cousins? They shouldn't do that! I don't think I like Nature."

"Did you ever hear of a fan tax? I know this guy who's one of the last clothing manufacturers in the city, and they came to him one day and said, 'you know, we noticed you have a fan up in the back of your shop, and there's a new fan tax.' And a ladder tax, too. Can you imagine that?..."

"Wow. I put (unintelligible) in my shoes and now they're stretched out."

"They're coming to our house today to put in new cable TV. HD TV, something to do with high definition, supposed to be a sharper picture..."

"I got a new phone. The old one was really big, and it didn't get good reception anymore and..."

All this in the space of four minutes before I inserted the earplugs. Sweet Lord in Heaven! Can you not give it a rest?

This is when he's got down time. Otherwise he's answering the phone, routing calls to the appropriate people. Sometimes the appropriate people would be a state government agency, or maybe a mental health hotline. He's got Bob Newhart syndrome. Like the comedian in his early days, he doesn't just answer the phone; he repeats everything the caller says. "You say you've got a terrible problem? You say you're concerned for your life? Your, uh, yes, neighbor lives downstairs and she's... trying to poison you by using dryer sheets in the laundry? And you want us to come out and test your apartment? And arrest your neighbor?"

It just drives me wild sometimes. There's no partition between this gentleman and me, so nothing to diminish the sound. He's fairly quiet when he's by himself, though he does like to go around to people's cubicles and strike up conversation with them if the phones are slow. Once his colleague arrives in late morning, he's got a tidal wave of suppressed chatter that needs to come out.

But I see an end in sight. In a few more weeks, we're to move desks, and I should have enough seniority to choose a desk well out of earshot of the Babbling Brook.

I feel guilty even writing about it, because I know he means no harm. But I can't hear myself think when I have to hear someone else think, too.


Jack said...

Thank you so much for this article. I'm someone who is looking to start a career in administration but because I'm quite highly introverted, I have been wondering how I could possibly cope with the open-plan office environment which is suited to extraverts. I had already thought that ear plugs would be the solution but it seemed a bit extreme and I thought that nobody else will have ever gone to those lengths before so I put the thought aside. I just thought about it again earlier and decided to do a quick Google search to find out if anybody in an office setting has actually gone to those lengths to block out distracting background noise and I found your article. I now feel justified in doing the same and you've made me wonder how many other people in office environments are doing the same or are at least wanting to block out the background noise. I have one concern though: will wearing ear plugs limit my capacity for self-talk? I hope you see this message and are able to address this concern of mine.

Thanks again for your article,


stwidgie said...

I think people do whatever they need to in order to function in an open office. You might need to be a little more aware of visual signals that people are trying to get your attention.

Good luck with your new career.