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The Sounds of Silence
September 24, 2007 - 6:02am

Evil HR Lady gave me a heads-up regarding a question she received about adjoining faculty offices, when the respective faculty have very different levels of noise tolerance. The original conversation is well worth checking out.

It brought back memories.

In my faculty days, my (shared) office was directly across the hall from a LOUD TALKER who loved to listen to his voicemails on SPEAKERPHONE AT HIGH VOLUME and enjoyed pontificating at great length on current events, always incorrectly and always with unshakable certainty. For a while, I thought he was just trying to bait me, but it became clear over time that my presence made no difference one way or the other. He simply felt entitled to all of the oxygen in any given room at any given time.

At times it got so bad that I actually closed my door during office hours just to take the edge off the din. (He was still clearly audible.) Asking him to keep it down was taken as an affront. In meetings, he was an absolute horror. Moving into administration helped, if only because my new office was a couple of hallways away. But I could always hear him coming.

For the life of me, I'll never understand why some people feel the need to crank up the volume on their speakerphones to play voicemails. I find that “picking up the handset” works pretty well. Failing that, one could always listen at a lower volume.

As a card-carrying introvert in a pathologically, almost cartoonishly-extroverted culture, I find myself wishing for a real-life “mute” button every single day. (And now, a moment of silence for Marcel Marceau. Or is that redundant?) People who can't think without speaking are bad enough; people who can't think without TURNING IT UP TO 11 are just abusive.

Of course, in an academic setting, any sort of gesture towards actual supervision is immediately taken as a moral outrage, so it's tough to enforce any sort of written policy. (“Thou shalt not be a douchebag” would be a little too vague.) And the folks who think they're entitled to drown out everybody around them would immediately take a written policy as a challenge. They'd take whatever isn't specifically prohibited as specifically permitted, just to make a point.

Background noise is an increasing issue, as it has become easier to surround oneself with music and suchlike at any given time. The “streaming audio” innovation and the “cubicle” innovation don't play well together. My free advice is that if you don't have solid walls, keep the music down or use earbuds. If you have a shared office, do what you want when your officemate isn't there, but keep a lid on it when he is. This is just common courtesy.

(And a word about buildings, whether office or commercial, that feel compelled to pump the local “Lite Hits” station into every passing moment: stop. Just stop.)

I'm always amazed, too, when people who deal with confidential information are housed in open offices. Thick walls make good neighbors, I say. If I'm in a heated discussion with some professor about some simmering conflict, I really don't need the local voyeurs taking notes. My 'open door policy' doesn't hold when I'm discussing something confidential, which is actually a good deal of the time. Some folks will naturally substitute “conspiratorial” for “confidential,” but that's just a cost of doing business.

(I can remember being told in grad school that male faculty would be well-advised to keep their office doors open anytime they're talking with female students, just to avoid any appearance of impropriety. Now, with FERPA, any discussion involving grades pretty much requires a closed door. Gotta love the wacky world of the law...)

My hunch, which I don't have enough data to verify one way or the other, is that locally acceptable standards for volume vary from campus to campus. (My current campus is unusually soft-spoken, which I consider a point in its favor.) They may also vary by region and by demographic – I'll just have to ask my wise and worldly readers to chime in on that one. But I don't have a magic answer for dealing with the LOUD TALKER in the next office. Has anyone out there found an effective method?


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