While working at a weekly newspaper in Wisconsin, Angela Kargus became intimately acquainted with a co-worker's personal life. Kargus learned about her fertility problems, that her dog urinates all over the carpet and that she does indeed have a regular menstrual cycle.
You're right to think these are the kind of personal details shared over a cup of coffee or on a friend's couch. Unfortunately, that's not what happened. Kargus and her co-worker aren't even friends. But her co-worker is a classic workplace loud talker. She yapped on her cell phone throughout the day with friends and, quite frequently, her mother.
This probably sounds familiar. Office loud talkers are everywhere, and the worst part is, they probably don't even realize they've been labeled as such. To the unknowing, here's a tip: Proper decorum calls for people to take personal conversations outside the office or into the hallway, especially since so many workplaces are in an open format where only top managers have offices (and doors they can close).
We're not all so lucky. In fact, the office loud talker certainly isn't the only pet peeve known to cubicle land. Among the more popular (or, actually, unpopular) are using a speakerphone with the door open or while in a public area; leaving the kitchen a mess; bringing potent-smelling food for lunch; and leaving the sound on the computer so everyone hears the ding of an instant message.
Despite the laundry list of complaints, the loud talker wins the award for most annoying. Of 2,318 people surveyed in March 2006 by Harris Interactive and Randstad, 32 percent say an office loud talker is their biggest pet peeve. Coming in a close second at 30 percent is using an annoying cellphone ringtone; 22 percent said speakerphones are their No. 1 peeve.
As for Kargus and her colleagues, no one in the newsroom ever complained directly to their co-worker. Kargus was nervous that her co-worker would get upset and seek retribution or that it would create a tense atmosphere.
Worse than the conversations that reduced Kargus' ability to concentrate was her co-worker's annoying cellphone ring: the Mexican Hat Dance.
"Writing is something you need to be in that zone to do," says Kargus, now director of media relations at the American Chiropractic Association. "Having the Mexican Hat Dance ringing breaks you out of the zone."
Not saying anything to the co-worker was a mistake, says Barbara Pachter, an executive coach who specializes in business etiquette. It's just a matter of saying it in the right tone of voice. "Be polite yet powerful," says Pachter, author of "When the Little Things Count ... and They Always Count."
Do that by saying what's bothering you and explaining the effect it has on your work. Then ask the person to either lower his or her voice or take personal calls out of the office. Then, ask if that's OK, to make sure the other person understands and will comply. Pachter offers a more specific example: "Hey, you might not realize — I hear your conversation and it's distracting to me. I'm having a hard time working. Could you please lower your voice? OK?"
For a situation like the one Kargus found herself in with her former co-worker, you can even make a joke out of hearing personal details. Say something like: "I don't think you want me to know that about you."
For repeat offenders, just give them a reminder by saying, "Remember that conversation we had the other day? Your voice is getting loud again."
Randstad, the staffing organization that contracted the pet peeve survey, takes workplace etiquette so seriously it incorporates it into new-hire seminars. Newsrooms, like the one Kargus worked in, are one extreme. They tend to be loud, open workplaces. The environment at Randstad is the opposite extreme. Personal cellphones must be on vibrate or silent the minute employees walk in the door. If they're not, someone will likely send a note that says, "Remember the rule? Turn your ringer off." To maintain a "professional" atmosphere, employees are only allowed to have two personal pictures on their desks.
Private rooms are provided where employees can make personal calls. And on some floors at every sixth desk, there is a table where four or five people can do work together. "We do that so there isn't that socializing that distracts other employees," says Genia Spencer, Randstad's managing director of human resources.
It's not likely most offices will go to that extreme or that it would even work. In the meantime, remember this: Silence your cellphone, eat smelly lunches in the cafeteria, turn the volume down on your computer and close the door when you use speakerphone! It will make for a much happier and productive workplace.