OMG. What if it’s me?
Every office has an overly chatty colleague, and the other day, as I noticed myself waiting for a co-worker to glance up so I could pounce, it occurred to me: What if I’m that dreaded colleague?
I got panicky and ran through the warning signs.
1) Do happily conversing co-workers frantically turn to their computers as I approach?
2) Is everyone around me wearing enormous noise-canceling headphones?
3) Do reporters assigned to desks in my vicinity spend an abnormal amount of time huddled in the sound-proofed booths scattered around the Globe newsroom? If so, is there any chance they all need privacy because they are interviewing for a job, getting (hopefully good) medical results, or fighting with a spouse/teenager? Please let this be the explanation.
If I am The Chatty One, which breed am I? The person who conducts phone calls at shouting level, as if struggling to be heard over a chopper touching down nearby? Or am I the worker who strolls through the office spewing anecdotes?
I’m all about taking responsibility for my actions, but if I am too chatty, it’s not my fault. I — like you and you and you — are pawns in a (now-widely criticized) design trend that’s seen companies tearing down office walls and lowering cubicle wall heights.
The goal was to increase collaboration and reduce office costs, but along the way, the trend spawned a million unwanted interactions.
Embarrassing though it was, I decided to ask a work friend if I’m too chatty. “Do you mean frequency of encounters,” he asked, “or duration?”
Under the guise of reporting a story, I contacted workplace experts and asked how to best deal with a chatty colleague in hopes of healing myself.
The number one thing I learned: Workplace talking is a big problem.
Here’s Amy Klimek, senior vice president of human resources at the employment marketplace ZipRecruiter, in an e-mail to the Globe: “Since people naturally raise their voices to match the volume of the conversations around them, a few talkative colleagues can quickly increase the overall noise level in a room quite a bit. . . . This can lead to significant disruption, which can result in gaps in productivity — particularly in open offices.”
Here’s the number two thing I learned: There are steps you can take to reduce unwanted interactions that won’t feel incredibly awkward or threaten to hurt the chatty person’s feelings. The least scary of the options is a physical barrier, such as strategically placed cubicle plants and the wearing of headphones. But these tools provide cover only when you’re at your desk. Out in the wilds of the office — say, in the kitchen area — you’re still vulnerable.
For this reason, you may want to master the verbal block, in the form of a polite-but-firm brush-off. “I’d love to talk, but I need to concentrate right now. Can we grab lunch some time?”
(I’m no expert, but this seems risky in that you are selling out your future self for your current self. Although it’s possible that lunch will never actually happen.)
Morra Aarons-Mele, a consultant on workplace issues and author of “Hiding in the Bathroom: How to Get Out There When You’d Rather Stay Home,” offered a more long-term strategy: Suggest to a manager that the workplace address chattiness proactively.
“In a perfect world, everyone feels heard — even the boss,” she said.
Here’s how her plan would work: The appropriate manager creates a safe space. Ground rules are set (such as no calling out specific colleagues who get on your nerves), and co-workers openly and honestly discuss their preferred work environment.
“People need to understand they have the right to claim their own work style,” she said. “It’s about creating a productive office.”
This was all very helpful, but I still didn’t have an answer about myself: I re-approached my colleague. “Just tell me,” I said, interrupting his work. “Am I too chatty?”
“You?” he responded. “No, I see you sitting at your desk for hours working.”
I should have left it at that, but I pushed.
“Would you tell me if I was?”
He looked at me, and whatever he saw made him take pity.
“No,” he said. “I wouldn’t.”
Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @BethTeitell.