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I work in a big corporate office and a slightly more senior colleague of mine under a different reporting line, with maybe ~25 years in the industry, Alice, has twice complained to me about how loud I speak - or it could be my actual voice.

The first time I was giving instructions to a colleague of mine and getting him some data to work on. At the time, I felt that it was warranted but still somewhat rude to say "Please keep it down - it's really bothering me" - it is an open office corporate space after all, not a library. That said, I did apologize and kept it down, making a conscious effort to tone in down since.

The second most recent time, an immediate colleague and I were discussing about our company and Alice, visibly annoyed, got up and reached for her in-ear headphones. Trying to be a good corporate citizen, I asked, "Alice, are we bothering you?" and Alice responded "a little bit but..." with something mumbled at the end. Anyway, I, again, adjusted and all went fine.

I find myself being bothered by this attitude. I am not the only one talking and when I am distracted from the technical work I do, I just get my headphone. I've never had someone complain about my voice or loudness and I need a way to respond in an assertive, strong way to basically say, I will try to keep it down but this is a corporate setting and you should get used to it.

EDIT: I wanted to add two more things.

1st - I don't speak loudly. My normal tone was bothering her - not me yelling or having a heated argument. It's the same tone that distracts me and I tolerate in the open office I work.

2nd - When I say "all went fine" - it basically meant that I ended up whispering or stopping the discussion altogether. That's not sustainable hence my question.

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    what "attitude" are you bothered by? Someone trying work? She didn't even complain the 2nd time; she took it upon herself to remedy her problem. Sharing a space means being considerate to others, and from what you've described, she's being polite and considerate. Put yourself in her shoes: is it possible you speak loudly? – dandavis May 23 at 16:45
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    FWIW, I work in a cubicle. Sometimes I need to put on headphones when people are having an extended conversation near me; no offense taken. It's just part of the job. Sometimes it doesn't bother me, sometimes I'm busy or frustrated or whatever and it bothers me more. – Hosch250 May 23 at 16:50
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    @Hosch250 Count yourself lucky. I work in an open office next to a busy walkway and I can't wear headphones because of archaic work policies... – Lux Claridge May 23 at 17:15
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    I do now. I don't think I'd stay there long! – Hosch250 May 23 at 17:25
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    I'm a little confused because you say "when I am distracted from the technical work I do, I just get my headphone" but it sounds like you considered it rude when Alice did exactly that? – DaveG May 23 at 17:51
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That's one typical problem with open office culture. Someone's communication is someone else's distraction.

So, let's analyze the situation: Someone requested you to change the level of your voice, and you were actually able to do that. That indicates, you could have started and continued in that tone itself which would not have caused any problems.

In other words, you tried to adapt to the suggestion, and it worked for both of you:

  • The colleague who complained, were not getting bothered anymore.
  • You were able to continue and complete the conversation you wanted to have with the modified tone and get the work done.

Different people have different choices, one solution does not fit to all. What is acceptable to you, may not be a suitable solution to someone else.

If keeping your voice in control keeps your co-worker happy, try to achieve it - there's no harm in that. If they are being annoyed and you don't like them to be annoyed - don't provide them with a reason.

How to respond

If someone has already complained (like the case you mentioned), apologize, and then either

  • Actively try to keep your voice level in check while having conversation
  • Pick a meeting / discussion room or conference room when you need to get into a lengthy discussion.

For future cases, take either of the preventive action listed above before someone else can come up with another complain.

Oh, and a request made like

"Please keep it down - it's really bothering me"

is not rude, it's very gentle.

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    I would dissent on "Please keep it down - it's really bothering me" being "very gentle"; it's not particularly rude, but not particularly gentle either. If that was the exact phrasing, I would say the person was intentionally trying to be quite firm about asking for reduced noise. (For contrast, I would consider something like "Would you mind keeping it down? The noise is really bothering me" to be gentle). – Daevin May 23 at 19:21
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    Tone and body language play a bigger role than phrasing in being rude or gentle. – aherocalledFrog May 23 at 19:53
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    @aherocalledFrog Still, the difference between a request and a demand is much more obvious if you frame the request as a question. – JMac May 23 at 19:59
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Tell her something alike: that you understand her and that she should kindly remind you, when being too loud is the case, because it's not your intention to bother anyone. That might be the most easy resolution to get along. Such territorial issues (exactly alike some may have them with their neighbors) always bring up the aspect, of who was there before (even if no regulations would catch, but HR might wish for a certain harmony)... beside that, I can only tell from experience, that having to actually program besides someone who performs loud phone calls is close to torture.

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An open space forces many people to live in the same environment; the tolerance for distracting elements may dramatically vary among different subjects.

While there are people that can cope with the constant noise fairly easily, there are others (like me, I have full-blown diagnosed ADHD) that suffer a lot from environmental noise and chatter.

Also the concept of "normal voice tone" varies a lot: I have had colleagues whose "normal tone" was a boomy, resonating voice that pierced even through earphones, while other voice types seem to blend more into the background.

What I feel to suggest is:

  • assume that, most probably, it's your duty to keep the efforts to regulate your tone

  • you cannot ask a colleague to be "less sensitive to distraction"; it's something that you can't help

  • don't assume that "grabbing the headphone" is a given. I would not have to resort to the headphone if people made a conscious effort to be quiet (that includes also using vibration instead of ringtones on their phones, etc.)

  • on the other hand, grabbing the earphones with an annoyed attitude may suggest that Alice tends to lean now towards passive-aggressive responses. This is maybe wrong on her side, she could simply ask again with a smile.

It seems that you both would profit by communicating on a calm and reasonable level. You have to do your best to keep your voice down, or maybe call people apart for long talks, but she has to confront you with a proactive attitude, and understand that sometimes it's unavoidable to have to talk.

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Alice might simply be the type to get easily distracted by sounds - I often wear closed headphones just to block some of the sound in room - mostly when I really have to concentrate on something - perhaps she is working on something important and even a minor distraction bothers her?

In my opinion you should try to ask her if this is the case and come up with a solution together. One solution would be just asking her beforehand if the conversation will bother her, and if she is doing something important - you could try moving the conversation to other coworker's cubicle or just inform her it is important and you will try not to be too loud.

If you are on friendly terms , another solution could be politely suggesting her to get ANC headphones (something like: "I see you're often bothered by people talking loudly nearby - have you ever heard about active noise cancelling headphones? They work magic for a friend of mine, maybe it would be worth checking them out in a shop?.") - a lot of people use them in open space offices here.

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I have Low Latent Inhibition, ADHD, and particularly good ears.

For all practical purposes, a workplace should be viewed as a library. People are trying to work! It is a lot easier to whisper than it is too cut off other people's hearing, particularly when, as in my case and likely 1% of the population, they literally can't tune noises out.

Perhaps find a conference room, rather than require that your co-workers, who are likely looking up definitions of sound torture, be subject to what is causing them pain?

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