The Worst Work Distraction Is a Noisy Co-worker

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This guy gets it.Photo: Walter Hodges/Getty Images

Every workplace has its share of distractions, but there is one particular strain of noisiness that seems to cause the most annoyance: the noises made by other people.

This week, NPR reports on the research of a “workplace design expert” at Cornell University, who finds that 74 percent of employees he surveyed were bothered by “instances of disturbances and distractions from noise” in their offices. But the distracting noises that proved hardest to ignore were the ones made by their colleagues. “In general, if it’s coming from another person, it’s much more disturbing than when it’s coming from a machine,” Alan Hedge told Morning Edition.

Humans are social creatures, Hedge said by way of explanation, which means we are innately curious about each other — which means, in turn, that it is hard to tune each other out when necessary. But another reason people can be so especially annoying is that people are unpredictable, and we are generally pretty bad at ignoring unpredictable things. It’s why listening to someone else’s phone conversation is particularly hard to ignore: With a two-sided conversation, you can kind of predict the back-and-forth flow. Not so when you’re only hearing one side of the chat. Indeed, a 2010 study found that people had a harder time concentrating on a task when listening to one half of a conversation between two people, as compared to those who listened to the full conversation.

Hedge says there are ways that office managers can handle these problems, including the somewhat counterintuitive advice to get rid of walls dividing cubicles, which may provide a false sense of privacy, thus accidentally encouraging some people to speak louder at their desks than they otherwise would. But if you are a worker bee, and therefore not in a position to knock down any cubicle walls, you may appreciate advice from Alison Green. The “loud personal call” is a mainstay of her Ask a Manager site, where she dispenses advice for dealing with all manner of workplace awkwardness. (Green is now a columnist for the Cut, too.) Her advice for a letter writer who is fed up with a co-worker’s annoying personal calls: “You have three options: Talk to him, talk to his manager, or deal with it.” So noted.