Is your cubicle the unofficial office water cooler? Are you tempted to set up shop in the handicapped stall just to close a door and get some work done? This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 5 tips for when Jeff from accounting stops by to give you the play-by-play of his morning workout.
Listener Brian wrote in with a dilemma. Like many office workers, he works in an open cube environment. He’s friendly and easygoing, but finds he’s a magnet for coworkers taking a break from their own work. People pull up a chair next to his cube and chat, sometimes for up to half an hour! And when they’re not hanging out in his cube, they’re often hanging out nearby, having a loud conversation or talking on the phone.
Brian’s work involves a lot of math and computer programming. In other words, his work is—you know—work. Brian says he’s even tried pulling his file cabinet’s drawer open as an ersatz privacy wall, which, unfortunately, his boss was quick to label as anti-social and a sign of not being a team player.
All in all, Brian asks how he can be more assertive, defend his space, and tell people he needs peace and quiet without letting resentment build or coming across as a jerk.
Therefore, this week, let’s dive into what to do when Donny from marketing stops by to show you his latest cat video.
One problem is the environment itself; here, science is on Brian’s side. In a study out of the University of Sydney, two architecture professors investigated the tradeoffs between open-plan versus traditional offices. The advantages of open-plan offices are, theoretically, better teamwork, creativity, and “ease of interaction.” But the study found that forced interaction did not offset the disadvantages of an open-plan office, which matched Brian’s experience exactly: noise and lack of privacy.
However, the real problem is that Brian is trapped by the Chatty Cathys and Garrulous Garys of the world. It’s a feeling familiar to many of us quiet types, and it’s not exclusive to the office—it can happen at parties, family get-togethers, or anywhere small talk leaves you scanning the horizon for an escape route. Ellen Degeneres likens the feeling to being on a highway with no exits when you have to pee.
Why Do Some People Talk So Much?
This begs the question: Why do some people talk so much? Some talkers fill empty space with nervous chatter to relieve their anxiety. Others keep up a stream of verbal filler because it keeps their brain distracted and off their emotions. Still others talk because they find it rewarding to talk about themselves. Indeed, everyone needs someone in their life to whom they can report what they had for lunch. Unfortunately, not everyone—including Brian—wants to serve this function.
We’ve all tried subtle cues to signal we don’t want to talk, such as, “Okay then,” or continuing to type while the person talks. But it seldom works. A recent study in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior even tested a classic subtle technique—avoiding eye contact.
In the study, conversations were staged between two actors and a participant. The actors were instructed to offer verbal approval like “Yes, I agree,” “Exactly,” or “Good point,” at specific intervals. What differed is that in half the conversations, the actors agreed only while making eye contact, while in the other half, they commented while looking away—a subtle cue we often use when trying to bring a conversation to a close.
So, did the participants pick up on this and talk less? Not at all. Avoiding eye contact had no effect. Even worse, the study found the participant chatted more to whichever of the two actors talked less.