Monday, September 24, 2007


The Sounds of Silence

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?

Currently in my office area, there is a guy who listens to his voicemail with the volume all the way up on the speaker phone. He also chats on the phone at the same volume. I can clearly hear both sides of the conversation. Since, I am in a cubical in the open office area near his office, I don't have a door to close. I was getting so frustrated with him until I finally met him (never really interact with him). He has prosthetic ears and hearing aids. I don't let the volume bother me now.
I've been a cubicle dweller for so long now that I've just learned to tune out not only the loud talkers, but also the people who persist in burning toast and popcorn (seriously, people, I'm no Julia Child but even I can cook those without supervision) in the central kitchenette; the ones who meander by and lurk in my doorless entryway until I acknowledge them and then stay to chat about nothing for endless stretches of time; and the ones who listen to (argh) country stations with staticky reception loud enough to make my teeth hurt six cubicles over.

I'm seriously considering making a wall-sized poster for my cube that says “Thou shalt not be a douchebag” though. Think it might help?
Our adjunct office is across from the favorite classroom of a guy who not only lectures at an incredible volume, but does so with a great deal of drama. The first day I heard him I actually thought someone was being murdered in there! But the other adjuncts all just looked amused or exasperated and commented how he was back in full voice so early in the semester.

I'm able to tune him out without much problem (now that I know nobody's being actively murdered) and rather enjoy his dramatics when I'm eating lunch and can listen in, but some of the other adjuncts can't stand even being in the shared office to eat lunch, let alone do any work.

As for closed doors and FERPA, when I was in school and FERPA had just come in, the compromise for male professors meeting female students was to close the door ALMOST all the way so the discussion could be private but any theoretical screaming could be clearly heard.

I don't notice as much concern about female students and male professors (or vice versa, I suppose) as I used to when I was in school; I think young women today are so self-confident and so used to interacting with men on a professional level that it doesn't even occur to them that it might lead others to suspect impropriety, and I notice the faculty generally take less notice of student gender. And more and more faculty themselves went to co-ed schools in an era when women and men were at college in roughly equal proportions. But I am young and my observation period is limited so I may be talking out of my ass. :)
There is no solution. Humanity divides into those who require (near-) silence to work and those who require a minimum level of noise at all times. Like dogs and cats, the two groups simply do not understand each other and never will. Even families divide up like this. I am a silence freak, yet my mother requires TV or radio input during all hours of consciouness, and will talk to the TV if there is no living person present.

In my experience, loud people simply don't see a problem. They have lived with their volume all their lives, so they tend to experience a request to pipe down as a personal assault on their character and freedom of expression. Because they have no problem tuning out - or drowning out - extraneous noise, they tend to be unsympathetic to those of us who do. If they don't much care about their colleagues' good regard - and a significant proportion of academics seem to be borderline asocial - they see no incentive to change their behaviour. Since 'too much silence' from the quiet people is hardly ever a problem, there's no possibility of a negotiated change.

The flimsiness of so much modern architecture has exacerbated the problem. If you can't seal all involved into separate soundproof enclosures, the most you can hope for is that it doesn't actually come to blows. I would like to lay the whole mess at the door of contemporary manners, or absence of same, but in truth insensitive boors have always existed.
Ok, I tend to be a loud talker. It's not intentional, and I try not to be disrespectful of those in my hallway, but yes, sometimes I need to be told to quiet down. It's partly regional, it's partly a class issue (working class people have a greater tendency to shout over one another than do middle-class or higher people), and it's partly just my natural way of being.

That said, my general policy is NEVER to meet with students with the door closed - not because of an "appearance of impropriety" issue so much as because of a safety issue. Inside a small windowless office with a potentially disgruntled and psychotic student to whom I gave an F is not someplace I feel comfortable being.
Give the loud talker the business card for an audiologist. They're probably hard of hearing...
Students and closed doors: Much of the impropriety that a faculty member might be accused of isn't loud, so mostly-closing the door makes the problem worse, not better. Some of my (young-ish, male) colleagues have told me they've been warned to have their office doors all the way open when meeting with female students. How they are supposed to maintain any kind of student confidentiality under those circumstances is beyond me.

That said: Have the quiet-please folks considered noise-canceling headphones, or at least listening to concentration-enhancing music? I don't have noisy colleagues, but I do share lab space with an old and incredibly loud water iPod saved my sanity during grant season this summer.
Early in my first semester of my current job, I came in for office hours to find that a colleague was BLARING a books-on-tape recording of the Bible. Music is bad enough, but the Bible? Maddening.
Two separate comments:

1. I'd wait until after a particularly sensitive conversation, pop in afterwards, and say, "I'm not sure you're aware that we could hear the conversation with your urologist very clearly. I promise to keep the information confidential, but you may want to be aware of that in the future."

2. My office has less-than-efficient air circulation, so I really cannot shut the door with a second person in my office for very long, especially in the afternoon with the sun hitting the window in summer (in Florida).
As with Dr. Crazy, I am loud, loud, loud. I try to keep it down, but I do not always succeed. I close the door when I need to have private conversations, but most other conversations are easily heard.

Worse yet, my colleague 3 doors down and across the hall and I are BOTH loud. We also like to visit and chat from time to time with one another or others, though I pay attention to "I am busy" cues. My colleague and I now do instant messaging, with the hope of trying to avoid pissing off the neighbors.

I did have a colleague who came over once to ask if I could "please be a little quieter." Being the Jersey girl that I am, I asked her to simply tell me to "pipe down" or "shut the hell up" if I was getting on her nerves. I do better with directness than nice requests.
Joining the inherently loud crowd. I seem to have a loud mode of speaking, unconsciously, and my wife regularily tells me to pipe it down when it gets ridiculous - which I do, when told.

I also have a slight tinnitus problem, which primarily manifests whenever there is no structured noise surrounding me. Thus, I tend to make sure I have music surrounding me at more or less all times.

I do, however, try my best to keep it in earplugs as long as possible, and try to be sensitive to cues that I'm imposing.
The answer for HR Lady's correspondent might be an exercise in musical offices. What I don't understand is how the incompatible ones were placed next to each other.

To the first anonymous: My parent's digital hearing aids have a "voice coil" option that picks up the telephone without any actual sound. Your colleague might have it and not even know about it.

I second (third, fourth) the comments suggesting that the loud talkers are hard of hearing and don't know they are going (or have gone) deaf. Seen the PHONAK ads in The New Yorker? My generation is going to make them rich.

The other possibility is that they are still projecting in their lecture hall voice. (Projecting your voice is not the same as being loud, but it has the same effect.) Sometimes I forget which voice I am using when I come back to the office.
Thanks for all the great comments. I'm the person who sent the question along to Evil HR Lady who, being not so evil some of the time, directed my question to DD in addition to posting it on her blog. It's been nice to hear (no pun intended) comments from both loud talkers and those who need quiet. The exchange has helped solidify for me the "no easy answer" nature of the problem. In the end, the radio-player has been able to move to an office down the hall conveniently close to another noiseaphile. A fortunate coincidence that this particular office recently became available. Unfortunately, this incident probably deepened already well-drawn lines in the sand between these 2 individuals, but I suspect that any incident that illustrated a difference of opinion between these 2 might have done this.

I also appreciated the "urology" example and will keep that one handy!
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