Office Etiquette, Vol. 9, Issue 7

Dear Etiquetteer: I have been working at a job for the past several months in an office where the staff have desks close together, and separated only by thin walls that merely block the view of other desks rather than sounds. Most people use quiet voices when speaking on the phone or talking with co-workers at their desks, in order to not disturb others. The building is old, with linoleum floors, and we all work to keep noise to a minimum.

You may be able to predict where this is leading, but here goes. We have a guy who recently started working who is so full of himself that he makes sure everyone can hear his every word - and I do mean every word.  I think he has taps on his heels, because he dances when he walks, and it sounds like Fred Astaire has returned from the grave! And when he laughs, it is so loud, and goes on for so long, that it feels like we're in Northridge, California, in 1994 while his deep voice just bellows on and on! He apparently finds this charming, even though this is an office, and others are trying to work! He also has a gross habit of sneezing and coughing quite often, and when he does, he completely "lets go." I've read that when a person sneezes, the speed of the air emanating from one's mouth is usually somewhere around 80 miles/hour. In his case, it's more like the speed of light, and we're talking about breaking the sound barrier! What's with this guy? He doesn't attempt to cover his mouth, minimize the sound, or any other measure that would show a small sense of consideration for others.

Since you have written about so many topics regarding etiquette, maybe you can guide us on how we can get this guy to "TONE IT DOWN."  Any ideas?

Dear Unnerved:

Etiquetteer was rather unnerved himself to receive your query, because it bears a strong resemblance to someone Etiquetteer knows very well: That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much. In fact, if you change the workplace from an old floor with linoleum floors to a new building with carpeting and cubicles, you have that rather gregarious man's workplace.

You mention all the distinctive characteristics of That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much in your query: the bellowing laugh, the heavy tread (sometimes referred to as "elephantine"), the loud conversational tone, and even the vigorous sneezing. Etiquetteer sometimes despairs at getting him to see the error of his ways. Possibly getting him to Cultivate a More Distinguished Tone will help (for instance, Greer Garson in "Mrs. Miniver" speaks in a low, clear, distinctive voice suited both to ladies and gentlemen -- how she escaped recording "Old Man River" in her later years Etiquetteer does not understand). This Sort of Voice is particularly helpful over the telephone.

But to return more specifically to the Loud Newcomer in Your Office: do you believe that he is really aware that he's creating trouble in the office? Certainly it's obvious to the rest of you, but this Loud Newcomer appears to be more oblivious than malicious. Somebody has to say something to him about it. While it never feels comfortable to correct someone's behavior, one begins by assuming that the offender is unaware. "Boaz, we're working in a very old building without much privacy at all, and I wonder if you're aware how much sound carries up here. I'm sorry to have to say this, but your voice comes off a lot louder than you probably think it is. Could you please make an effort to speak more quietly?"

If no one in the office has the courage to do speak out, Loud Newcomer's supervisor gets the job. That's why offices have supervisors. And if that doesn't help (but it almost always does), you may have to resort to wisecracks like "Louder, so my mother in [Insert Name of Distant City Here] can hear you!"

No, Etiquetteer is NOT really recommending that approach!

These problems never go away on their own. Etiquetteer wishes you and your Quieter Colleagues the best of luck as you approach Loud Newcomer with a Respectful Request to Keep Quiet.

Like many Perfectly Proper People, Etiquetteer mourns the death of Elizabeth Post, the worthy successor of Emily Post in the Post Panoply of Perfect Propriety.

Please do send your own etiquette queries to Etiquetteer at queries_at_etiqueteer_dot_com!