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Our office space is pretty tight and there are no cubicles.

There is a guy sitting next to me and he is the loudest person I ever met. He is groaning, crackling, puffing, giving loud sighs and other very weird sounds. All these are non stop sounds 8 hours a day.

It must be funny to hear (well it does sound funny for my husband) I counted how many sounds this guy produces a minute - it is around 10-25 sounds every minute.
Before he used to talk to himself and exclaim his thoughts aloud. I asked him several times to stop it and eventually he did stop.

Now I'm thinking, I can't ask him to stop breathing, right? What do I do?

Things I tried:

  • Loud music in headphones
  • Earplugs
  • Working couple of hours a day from a meeting room
  • Imitating his sounds right after he produces them
  • Making annoying sounds myself

All of these is still not a permanent solution or doesn't help at all. This situation just drives me nuts.

Things like "go to your manager and ask for another place" - I can't do. We don't have too much space and besides I need to stay together with my team(loud guy is not a part of it).

And even so, what do I say to a manager - I can't concentrate at my work because that guy next to me breathes aloud?

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It's my experience that irritating habits only become genuinely problematic when I (or whoever) find the person irritating for other (usually professional) reasons. Would that be the case here, or not? –  pdr Sep 26 '12 at 21:06
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You may be right. I need to think it over to understand what's the root of the irritation. –  Nat Sep 26 '12 at 21:10
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@pdr I disagree with you, constant "biological function" sounds are annoying, and a quiet work space shouldn't be an unreasonable thing to ask for. –  McGarnagle Sep 27 '12 at 15:49
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@owen You're welcome to your opinion. I can think of nothing worse than a workspace where everyone's lined up in silent rows, frightened to make a sound for fear of upsetting someone else. –  pdr Sep 27 '12 at 17:13
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@pdr because noisy eating or coughing sounds are not constant –  Nat Oct 2 '12 at 0:29

9 Answers 9

up vote 31 down vote accepted

Any discomfort with a coworker should be known and understood because it affects your productivity. You'll anticipate noises, you'll think about it all the time and when the guy comes back after a break or something you'll start being nervous again. In my experience you solve conflicts this way:

  1. Tell people when you are uncomfortable. If a co-worker is bothering you with ranting about politics etc. You tell him straight: Sorry I'm not interested in that subject. Please let's discuss about something else.

  2. When 1 didn't work: try to avoid the problem. Noise-isolating headphones for instance. Working from home as much as possible. As long as it doesn't prevent good productivity.

  3. If 1 AND 2 don't work, talk to someone who can change the situation. Aka. The boss. Always your boss. Your manager is not only responsible for the paperwork but also maintaining a good spirit in the team.

I think you're at 3 right now.

I had similar problems not too long ago. In my case people were interrupting my work because I'm right beside the printer and people stop and have a chat with me while they print big documents. My solution was to be honest with people and say I got to work and I got a pair of noise-isolating headphones (ugly as hell but functional). In a meeting I told people very gently that when I have my headphones on it's my "Don't disturb time". The only exception is in case of fire emergency (we all agreed on that one).

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You say that asking him to stop talking to himself worked, even if you had to ask multiple times, why not just do that again? Politely explain that his behaviour is distracting you and try to find a solution to the problem with him. You mention that moving to a different office / space is not an option for you, but perhaps it's an option for him?

If talking to him fails and since you've already tried headphones and earplugs, your last option would be to talk to your manager. Again politely explain that your co-worker is unnecessarily distracting and his behaviour is affecting your work, and let them deal with the issue.

Do not:

  • imitate his sounds right after he produces them,
  • make annoying sounds yourself.

Antagonizing him will be extremely counter-productive, even offensive, and if you are annoyed by his sounds it's possible others are too, do you really want to contribute to the problem by making more sounds?

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@Nat If there are health problems, then he really needs to talk with management and perhaps a solution would be that he is moved as far away from anyone as possible. Isolation may not be the best solution for him, but it might be the only solution for you. But this is something you really need to clarify first, not much sense in guessing. He might not want to discuss health issues with you, so if you decide to bring it up, be as delicate as possible. Can't really be more helpful than that, I'm a bit crude myself and usually avoid (or make a horrible mess out of) such situations. –  Yannis Sep 26 '12 at 20:52

I realized that I might be one of those coworkers who is a little loud. When I'm working on a tough programming problem, I really get into it to the point where I sometimes find myself growling at my computer screen or talking to myself as I'm working.

Ironically, after reading this post, I've tried to cool it a bit. :)

Being on the other side of this issue, I'd personally appreciate if someone could politely take me aside and say "Hey man, I'm not sure if you realize this, but when you [insert X behavior here], it is sort of distracting. Do you think you could keep it down?".

It's quite possible that your audibly-challenged coworker may not realize he's being a nuisance. So, politely say something; it might not just help you and your other coworkers but also make your now quieter coworker a more pleasant person to be around, which could make his experience better since more people might be nicer to him.

As for me personally, when people come in our office and start talking or joking around, if I'm trying to focus, I just put on my headphones. I've never needed to talk to anyone about such annoyances as I just drown them out with music.

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To handle a loud coworker, just drown the person out with some music.

You don't want noise-cancelling headphones, or just any headphones. Instead, you actually want noise-ISOLATING headphones.

"Noise-canceling phones utilize an active noise reduction system. They electronically produce a frequency which, with varying degrees of success, cancel out white noise (constant mid-level sounds like airplane engines and track noise). They require a power source (a single AAA battery in one earphone or two batteries in an external case).

Noise-isolating phones use a passive system, [in-ear versions] simply sealing the ear with a variety of foam canal tips. To the 30db or so reduction in all outside noise this alone provides, sound is enhanced by being sent directly into the ear. The ratio of music to outside noise in the ear is, therefore, extremely high They need no batteries..."

http://www.earphonesolutions.com/nocavsnois.html

Noise-canceling headphones (e.g. Bose) don't block voices. They are unlikely to block coughs, grunts, sneezes, yelps, or any other co-worker-manufactured noise.

(I tend to wear 30 dB foam ear plugs under a pair of noise-isolating headphones.)

Use these, and you won't hear your coworker anymore.

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It's a sad state of affairs when one ends up needing to purchase some pricey noise-cancelling headphones just so they can concentrate at work. Especially in my case where the distracting people that are making all the noise aren't doing any work themselves. –  THE DOCTOR Jan 9 at 16:16

You may not like this, but what I'm missing in all the answers so far is:

Stop being irritated

You constantly register these sounds because you have an opinion about them. Yet there are thousands of other sounds around you all day that you have no problem with.

As you already said "I can't ask him to stop breathing". That's correct, you might even say "I can't deny him being".

Years ago I had to sleep in a mountain cabin where many people started snoring. At that moment my choice was: Either I'm irritated and I don't sleep properly, or I ignore the sounds. That was a very clear either/or situation similar to yours.

What may help is interpreting his sounds differently. He does not make those sounds to irritate you. He is even a great guy who stopped talking to himself when you asked him! Maybe he just has trouble breathing, or positioning his body, or ... whatever interpretation you come up with that empowers you.

My wife also snores. I interpret it as "Look, isn't that nice - my loved one goes to dream country".

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That's very positive attitude, I like it :) It teaches patience, which I'm lacking :) I did tried what you described before, explaining to myself same things, like he is a human, there are tons of other sounds around, etc. And it worked sometime, sometime not. –  Nat Aug 16 '13 at 13:59

It's a tough situation and there's no easy solution. I'd say you could discuss about it with this person (again) privately, being very sincere and then also with some other coworkers (also privately, to avoid any embarrassment). Then...

In case they agree with you, and this behavior negatively impacts in the working environment, it could be escalated to your managers (as you're not the only one being impacted). But,

In case they don't agree with you, you'll need to get over it somehow.

Clearly, you both can't share the same workplace. It's a matter to define who doesn't belong to this workplace.

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I already touched this topic with one of the co workers. We were not pointing fingers, but both agreed that its hard to work in the office where space is so tight. I understand at some point I have to talk to him, but what do I say? –  Nat Sep 26 '12 at 20:52

The question I originally answered was marked as a duplicate, so I moved my answer here.

Having face a similar problem in the past I found it's most effective to be completely honest to whomever is the source of my irritation, me. I know that there is something in me which is triggering this irritation and that however hard I try I will not be able to change other people.

I can ask somebody once or more times, and their behaviour may change for a short while, and they will almost certainly relapse into their old behaviours repeatedly.

So I started wearing headphones.

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I just noticed that when I'm upset or tired - he irritates me more. If I'm too involved into my work - I don't hear anything. So yes, headphones is the best solution for me. And trying to stay positive :) –  Nat Aug 16 '13 at 14:00
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Some people simply don't get the non-verbal cues. I've had my earphones tapped just so my colleague could say "... and another thing I hate is...." –  user924272 Apr 30 at 1:03

It's taken me over a year to figure out how to win here (after other attempts from management). I simply asked colleague who sits much further away if I could sit next to them for a while as x is distracting me too much and I really need to focus, whilst looking at x while I'm asking - with a cheeky smile and a nod.. I For what it's worth, I already got on quite well with this person.

It worked a treat... but I think you have to be a bit brazen to pull it off.

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I had the same issue with a co-worker at a previous job, but I don't think mine was quite as bad as yours. In my case it wasn't ALL day, but it would be several times a day for 30m minutes to 1 hour.

Honestly, you only have a few options and usually you won't completely 'fix' the problem. Maybe you can cut the amount of noise in half and learn to deal with the rest. What ever you do, go waaaay overboard on being nice about it, then blame yourself for needing a quiet atmosphere to be productive.

  • Go to your boss and see if he can do something

Some bosses don't like to get involved, so this may/may not work. But, even if they don't do anything, they will be offended if you don't ask them first. Make sure you give them plenty of opportunity to fix it.

  • Go to the other person's boss and politely ask if they can do something

You will likely meet the most resistance here. Not only are you complaining about someone they like(probably), but you are also questioning their management ability.

  • Talk to the person

It sounds like you've tried this already. You'll get limited success here, because you are trying to change something embedded in their personality that they have probably been doing for years. They will be nice and cut down for a week or two, but it will eventually come back

  • Ask to be moved

Not an easy task, but if they value your time and productivity, they should be able to do this for you

Chances are that this has been happening so long that you are overly sensitive to it and the smallest sound from him will set you off. You need to learn to deal with a certain noise level. I found this white noise site VERY helpful: http://simplynoise.com/ . Just let it run in the background and crank it up when you get really annoyed.

Good luck.

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