At work a few weeks ago, a coworker was listening to music with her earphones in, and I needed to ask her a question because a piece of code I was writing was not working and she often helps me debug things. I pulled her earphones out of her ear and she looked at me really angrily for doing that, but I think I might have caught her earring or something. She then told me it hurt when I pulled her earphone out but I always pull mine out and I have never been hurt once so I don't know if she's telling the truth.

A few days later I needed her help again and patted her on the back and she said please don't touch me. In this situation I said sorry and she said it's fine but she doesn't like being touched (which is weird because when we go out for drinks after work her boyfriend is always touching her...)

If I need her help in future how can I get her attention? I think waving my hand in front of her face would be rude because it could startle her if she is concentrating on something on the screen.

  • 15
    I suppose you are at office. How are your desks? Your positions in the office room? I ask that because I simply knock-knock the corner of his/her desk, in a place where me/she could see my hand, while I stand up near his/hers office. And it works.
    – lukuss
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 13:23
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    Do you have any means to communicate electronically with her? (i.e. e-mail, company chat)
    – kscherrer
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 13:26
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    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. This includes explanations on why the ways that were already tried are not okay. I've had to delete a lot of those already.
    – Tinkeringbell
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 13:08
  • 9
    What country are you in? The office culture is different in some places, and it could help formulate an answer.
    – Anoplexian
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 17:33
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    Please Note: Comments are not for discussion. They can ONLY be used for requesting for clarification or suggesting improvements. They should not be used for justifying whether that action by OP was rude or not, or posting answers, or any kind of discussion. Such comments will be removed WITHOUT notice.
    – A J
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 17:24

13 Answers 13


What I've found works best in my own workplace is to either tap on the persons desk, or wave off to the side.

Tapping on a desk/table usually works best because the person in question can feel the vibration, which is more subtle and less of a disturbance than having a headphone pulled out or physically touched.

If tapping on a surface is unavailable though, try positioning yourself where they can see you. I often have coworkers approach and "peek" above my cubicle wall with a short wave so that I know they're coming. If you must approach her directly, try waving off to the side of her vision. You're correct to assume it'd probably come off rude to wave your hand directly in front of her face, so avoid that.

If these methods don't seem to fit what you're looking for, contact her via email/IM/etc. This is the most graceful method, as it doesn't require you to interrupt what she's doing in any capacity, and is as quick as saying something like:

"When you have a free moment, could you stop by my desk for a few questions?"

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    Tapping on the desk can be taken wrongly by some persons, I think getting in their visual cone and waving might be better (not in front of her face of course).
    – Hawker65
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 11:44
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    Or just stand in her peripheral vision. She will notice you, but the lack of motion (waving) will give her the mental space to finish her thought before she breaks off to acknowledge you. Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 13:49
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    I knew one person that was tapping on my desk in such situations. For some reason it annoyed me quite severely while just looking at me, waving or even touching my shoulder didn't bother me at all.
    – Ctrl-C
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 11:54
  • I join the other in saying that tapping on the desk is not great. Getting in the visual cone is better.
    – Legisey
    Commented Jan 31, 2020 at 13:36

Before answering, there are a few things I think are important to address.

She then told me it hurt when I pulled her earphone

When you pull your own earphone, you might not be hurt, but the person from whom you pulled them this time was not you, but her. You might not have realised how strong you pulled them, maybe she pulls them in a different way, maybe she has extremely sensitive ears. The fact of the matter is, she has no reason to lie to you. So I think you should take her on her word.

She doesn't like being touched

You say that you think it's weird because she has no problem letting her boyfriend touch her, but, he is her boyfriend, you are not. The boundaries she will set for him and for you are completely different. Most people won't let a friend or a coworker act the same way towards them as their significant other. A personal example would be: my significant other can touch my hair, but if anyone else tries to touch them, I will bend in every shape possible to avoid their contact.

What to take away

She decided to set clear boundaries between you and her and told you what those boundaries are, and you should respect them.

How to get her attention

Several ways are possible, depending on the setting.

  • Send her a Skype message, or any other messaging you know she uses. In a professional setting, it could be any software used by your company to communicate.
  • Write a note, and slide it slowly towards her.

What you SHOULD do

First off, you might want to apologise, since she might still be hurt by your past behaviors.

Then talk to her about the situation and agree (with her) on a way to get her attention when you need to.

Why: it allows you to get her attention with a method you KNOW for sure will not bother her.

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    Hello! We've recently decided to start implementing a back-it up policy and I'd like to encourage you to elaborate a little more on the 'what you can do' and 'what you should do' parts of your answer. I'm guessing this is a pretty common situation, and things may seem obvious, but considering that they apparently aren't (or they wouldn't be asked about): Have you ever used any of the suggestions you're suggesting here in real life, how (what did you write?) and why do they work, what's the average response time for example?
    – Tinkeringbell
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 12:30

I pulled her earphones out of her ear and she looked at me really angrily for doing that

Pulling someone's headphones out is a pretty horrible thing to do, I hope you apologized to her afterwards. Don't do that again.

she said it's fine but she doesn't like being touched (which is weird because when we go out for drinks after work her boyfriend is always touching her.

There is a large difference between being touched by a boyfriend and touched by a coworker, especially if you aren't close.

think waving my hand in front of her face would be rude because it could startle her if she is concentrating on something on the screen.

You are right to think that would also be rude.

If you have an internal messaging system you can always contact her there to get her attention. If that isn't available and you need to make contact in person I would suggest waving beside her so you will catch the corner of her eye and not directly interfere with her work. When you catch her attention just mime taking headphones out and she will. If you can't wave while standing beside her I would lightly knock on her desk as if you were knocking on a door and repeat the miming gesture.

  • 6
    Hello! We've recently decided to start implementing a back-it up policy and I'd like to encourage you to elaborate a little more. I'm guessing this is a pretty common situation, and things may seem obvious, but considering that they apparently aren't (or they wouldn't be asked about): Have you ever used any of the suggestions you're suggesting here in real life, how (what did you write?) and why do they work, what's the average response time, for example?
    – Tinkeringbell
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 12:32
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    in the interest of 'back it up': I have in the past few months picked up the habit of lightly knocking on someone's desk, and responses have been favourable. I have not seen anyone startle, usually my co-workers calmly shift their attention from what they were doing to me, to see what it is I want. As I would when knocking on a door (wait for them to open), I calmly wait for them to focus on me before posing whatever question I have. The 'waving' approach now seems even on the rude side - but that mat be a cultural thing.
    – Anique
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 9:13
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    I agree strongly with your first two points. Waving a hand may be considered rude as you say, but still, I think it probably should have been the first of the three actions tried. (I think would be less rude than yanking a headphone out of someone’s ear or patting them on the back.)
    – user12334
    Commented Jun 2, 2018 at 23:51

All of the devs in my office wear earphones when working and is usually a clear indicator that we're focused on something. We used to have an issue with the other departments coming to our area and breaking our concentration when we were in the middle of something, and we fixed that by establishing an office-wide rule to PM us instead.

This is what the devs do to get one another's attention as well. The only exception I have is for the dev I sit next to. Because of our proximity we usually ask one another to look over the code we are working on. We agreed that we can just lightly knock or tap the corner of each other's desk to get the other's attention instead of PMing.

There are other ways to get your coworker's attention besides invading her personal space. Our new designer will currently stand about 3 feet from my desk in my peripheral view and wave awkwardly until I'm at a stopping point. While that is not ideal, it is not as invasive and startling as someone pulling out my earphones or touching me unexpectedly.

You should discuss with her what would be the best way to get her attention instead of randomly trying stuff until something works. I think your current approach will just make her more and more uncomfortable. I also think that she would appreciate an apology as well. Wait till she's not working on something and try to talk to her about it.

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    As a software engineer, once we had even more strict rule for other departments: if it's not really important, send us an email. Initially this required a lot of reminding: "is it REALLY important right now? No? Then please send it in an email, guys are working on really important things now". This made people think about the problem they want to present to us. In result it lowered the total quantity of issues presented to us because people often solved their own problems or dropped them as not important themselves.
    – Ctrl-C
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 12:12

Although there are lots of good suggestions on how to get someone's attention without being too rude, there's no mention about when it's appropriate to do so.

Basically, what you're suggesting is that your work is more important than whatever they're doing. Headphones can often be a sign of 'please don't bother me' if the person doesn't wear them all the time; even if they typically wear them, it can still be an indication. Cubicles are particularly bad for people who have issues focusing.

Personally, if I'm in the zone, and someone bothers me, it might take me 30+ minutes to get my mind back to where I can be productive. It's even longer when I'm working with really complex code. So what to others is disturbing me for 'only a minute' might actually be an hour or more of lost productivity. (and many months for the time when they kept pestering me because they wanted to talk about non-work stuff, I got angry, and that made it up to management on the same day as the Navy Yard shooting)

If you can, catch the person when they're not in their cubicle; maybe when they get in, on their way to lunch, back from the bathroom, etc. I'll often leave a note on someone's desk when they're not there, and I've been known to leave a short written note if they're on the phone. If you can't do that, send an e-mail / IM message / etc. You should also try finding other people who might be able to help you so you're not always bothering the same person. Some organizations have a group chat or e-mail list for specific languages. There may be a mentoring program.

The real thing to consider is that you need to get better at the task that you're asking other people to help with -- yes, that person might be able to do it in 1/10th the time that you can, but if they always do it for you, they're holding you back from improving. (because explaining to you how they think about debugging takes way more time than just telling you where you left out a semicolon). If you look online, you can find tips on how to debug, although it can be language/project specific. (ie, you can't always add print statements all over the place)


Excellent answers here all around! However, I feel that nobody really elaborated on why using a messaging tool (Slack, Facebook, AOL, whatever) is a great idea, especially for software developers.

I'm a programmer. Any profession that involves periods of intense concentration or mental effort inevitably involves breaking that concentration. The worst thing is when that concentration is broken and you didn't cause it (i.e., a coworker comes to bug you [no pun intended]).

When I'm staring at my computer reading or writing code, I'm concentrating really hard. The most annoying thing for me is to be touched to get my attention... it breaks my concentration and I lose my train of thought instantly. Not only is it lost because someone is coming to ask/tell me something, but because I have to context switch from lifeless, programmatic text on my screen to interaction with a real, live human being who has emotions and requires tact to interact with. It's a big context switch, and that causes a lot of lost progress in terms of your train of thought related to mentally-intensive tasks, because you didn't have time to prepare for it.

With messaging, however, I can give a cursory glance to the notification, turn back to the code I'm reading/writing and wrap up or mentally bookmark my progress in 10 seconds or less. Those 10 seconds of "I still have time before the context switch" are really important. It gives me time to temporarily internalize what I was working on, so that I can be prepared to resume after the interaction with the person. I can also take a little longer than 10 seconds to read the message if I'm in the middle of something incredibly important (like restarting a crashed application).

Moreover, the receiver of the message is in control. You'd be surprised how many people are irritated by lack of control over their own personal space and time (I am one of these people).

Not only are you doing your coworker a service by allowing them time to wrap up what they were doing (by allowing them to respond to the message), but you're also doing them the pragmatic service of allowing them to retain control over their own personal space and time, which can be a huge factor for some people in interpersonal relationships.

Keep in mind that all of this assumes that the person you are messaging actually reads and responds to messages... and in a timely manner. If the person you want to interact with has a habit of not reading their messages, then you should absolutely consult other answers! Asking your coworker how they prefer to be interrupted is also a good idea, especially after you've already made the mistake of doing in a badly-received way.

  • Basically anything that doesn't give a sense of urgency. You can even have a colleague wave at you from their desk but immediately turn back to their monitor instead of holding their gaze at you. Then you can basically wrap up what you were doing and pay attention to them. I found that emails for nonurgent things are the best, you can read them in batches. Nonprogrammers need to be aware that we're putting pieces of puzzles (code) in our heads and a context switch wipes them out, leaving us only with most important conclusions, unable to effectively continue. That was a great pun though :)
    – Ctrl-C
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 12:31

The other answers already give excellent advice on how to get her attention. With this answer, I would like to give some background information that might be helpful to choose appropriate actions in this and similar situations.

TL;DR: There are different kinds of distance depending on occasion and relationship.

Distances in Man

Intimate Distance—Close Phase

This is the distance of love-making and wrestling, comforting and protecting. Physical contact or the high possibility of physical involvement is uppermost in the awareness of both persons.

Intimate Distance—Far Phase (six to eighteen inches)

The use of intimate distance in public is not considered proper by adult, middle-class Americans even though their young may be observed intimately involved with each other in automobiles and on beaches.

Personal Distance—Close Phase (one and a half to two and a half feet)

Where people stand in relation to each other signals their relationship, or how they feel toward each other, or both. A wife can stay inside the circle of her husband's close personal zone with impunity. For another woman to do so is an entirely different story.

Personal Distance—Far Phase (two and a half to four feet)

Subjects of personal interest and involvement can be discussed at this distance.

Social Distance—Close Phase (four to seven feet)

Impersonal business occurs at this distance, and in the close phase there is more involvement than in the distant phase. People who work together tend to use close social distance. It is also a very common distance for people who are attending a casual social gathering.

Social Distance—Far Phase (seven to twelve feet)

Business and social discourse conducted at the far end of social distance has a more formal character than if it occurs inside the close phase. Desks in the offices of important people are large enough to hold visitors at the far phase of social distance. Even in an office with standard-size desks, the chair opposite is eight or nine feet away from the man behind the desk.

Public Distance—Close Phase (twelve to twenty-five feet)

Linguists have observed that a careful choice of words and phrasing of sentences as well as grammatical or syntactic shifts occur at this distance. Martin Joos's choice of the term "formal style" is appropriately descriptive: "Formal texts . . . demand advance planning ... the speaker is correcfly said to think on his feet."

Public Distance—Far Phase (twenty-five feet or more)

Thirty feet is the distance that is automatically set around important public figures. ... The usual public distance is not restricted to public figures but can be used by anyone on public occasions.

(These are excerpts from Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension, Chapter X: Distances in Man. There is much more text regarding each kind of distance.)

Pulling her earphone out or patting her on the back, you enter intimate distance. This is reserved for very close people, like her boyfriend. Waving in front of her face is intimate or close personal distance.

At work you are probably expected to use at least social distance. So you can send a message, pass a note, wave across the cubicle, etc.

(There are some exceptions described in the book, e.g. elevators. Working together at the same computer might be another one.)


The given distances are not universal, but depend on culture (here: US) and subculture. As @Spehro Pefhany notes, there are notable systemic differences between city and rural folks, even within a culture. Both in the size of the bubble and how offended or threatened people feel if it is violated.

Distance is a form of nonverbal communication. Using intimate distance (like pulling her earphone out) might say that you are her boyfriend, or it might be interpreted as aggressive, or that there is a very good reason (like avoiding an accident).

For further reading I'd recommend "The Silent Language" and "The Hidden Dimension" by Hall. If you like science fiction, "Hellspark" by Janet Kagan is a good introduction.

  • 2
    Please especially pay attention to the Intimate Distance—Far Phase. Don't be the one that talks with people in this area, if you see that you talk with someone and immediately their neck tilts back or even they take a slight step back - you're too close. Similarly with walking with someone, if they move in an arc - they're trying to get some space. I've been on the victim side of both and it feels weird, like the other side lacked something crucial - a sense of personal space.
    – Ctrl-C
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 12:23

Ask them what they prefer - If the touching is a problem, ask them what you should do. Let them tell you what do to:

Hi, you told me not to touch you, and I won't touch your headphone (again, sorry about that), but I'm not really sure how to get your attention, what would you prefer?

Wave - We just wave, depending on where you are related to the person. Try to aproach from the front or side. If you come from behind, try a little curve so you still come from the side. This is a very 'light' method and rarely results in a startle. It also allows the person to respond something like "one moment please". Don't do this right next to the person. You can do this from a small distance, to about a meter away from the person.

Send a message - We use Slack, but if you have some kind of message service you could use that. They can read the message, often in the notification, and respond accordingly. This also allows you to ask the question directly, or say what it's about "Got a moment to talk about X?".

Stand next to them - You could just stand next to them, about 1 to half a meter next to them. Their peripheral vision should see you and grab your attention. When they notice you, they could take of their headphone. Be sure to not stand too close, as someone suddenly being in your personal space can startle you very easily.

Tap on the chair/desk - Just a simple *tap tap* will suffice. This is an annoying option, but sometimes it's handy to do so. The other people in the office might be less interrupted by this.

A simple light tap on the shoulder/back - Not a full touch, but a simple one finger tap. People are sensitive, a light touch will grab their attention.

DO NOT GRAB THEIR HEADPHONE. I would respond angrily as well, as you are suddenly touching me, disturbing my focus and possible hurt me. When you wear headphones for a while, ears often get a little more sensitive because the constant pressure.

  • 15
    Given the OP's apparent propensity to not have a great sense of where other people's personal space begins and ends, could you incorporate some guidance on appropriate distance for waving? eg not so close that it provokes a fight or flight response like their other approaches. Given that the colleague has already asked the OP not to touch her, and that many people would rather not be touched, would it be better to either omit that one of caveat it in some way?
    – user9837
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 16:38

You mention: "she often helps me debug things."

Please believe this: you are the reason she put the earphones in. Your use of her time was excessive. Using earphones is the number one answer to the question "how do I get a co-worker to quit bugging me?", and working at your keyboard with headphones in is universally recognized as a "please don't bug me" message.

Pulling out someone's earphones is, on principle, an assault. Or perhaps battery, if you snuck up from behind. You really need to come to terms with how inappropriate this was.

Unless she's your manager or leader or a formally designated mentor, she does not need to be available to you; she needs to get her own work done. Whatever it is you "need" her for, you need to figure out for yourself. Or, go to your manager and say, my work is too difficult, I can't do it without help, and I've made it this far by excessively using my colleague. Far better that your manager hear it from you than from her--or from one of the other co-workers who have been watching this play out, or that she's vented to.

At most, what you might do is send her (cc your manager) an e-mail, thanking her for the help she's provided, apologizing for the many interruptions, and asking if she can set aside a half-hour from time to time, at her convenience, to help you work through things that have stymied you. If she's got any generosity left, she may work with this. Take what she offers graciously and don't abuse it.

If the response is anything less than positive, even something ambiguous like "I may not be the best person to help you" or "not right now but perhaps in a week or two" then back off, and let this heal over time.

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    Can you give some backup on how this will be helpfull/had been helping you in the past? And especially give some backup explaining why OP is with certainty the reason for them using headphones?
    – dhein
    Commented Jan 30, 2020 at 11:23

What we do at our team amongst ourselves is call the person by their name in a voice that is not yelling but reasonably loud enough to be heard over music at typical volume. If they don't react after about 3 times of calling their name (with a couple of seconds pause between repetitions), then we do a gentle tap on the shoulder.

Do note that not all body contact is the same. A pat on the back is more invasive of one's personal space and specially so if that person is of the opposite gender. Consider that many of us only ever feel hands on our backs when hugging someone, so it can feel like a very close-relationship kind of contact. All you need is to get the person's attention, so the tap only needs to be as strong as to know they must have felt it, but no stronger. Gentle.

Also, don't put your palm on the shoulder; that can feel patronizing. Just 2 or 3 fingertips is good.

That said, because of your previous intrusions, I'm doubting even a tap on the shoulder is welcome. You should definitely sincerely apologize and ask her preference. She may be fine with a gentle tap on the shoulder, after you ask her if it's fine.

On removing her headphones, other people have explained that it's rude, but to get a better intuition as to why, it might help to give examples of other situations that seem similarly rude. Consider that instead of listening on headphones:

  • she's working on a laptop and you close the lid, or
  • she's writing on a paper and you remove the pen from her hand, or
  • she's watching TV and you take the remote and turn it off

The key rudeness part is that you're forcibly denying her of what she's doing. "Why would you do that when there are less forced ways of getting my attention?" is what I would be thinking in her shoes.

  • Excellent examples. They're like: "No, you won't do that, you will pay attention to ME.".
    – Ctrl-C
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 12:40

Pulling earphones out of someone’s ears is a significant health risk. For you. You are lucky that you were not punched. Never, ever try that with me. Never.

Step 1: Consider that the person may not want to be disturbed and respect that if possible.

Step 2: Step into their view so they must see you and wave wildly with your arms. Makes you look stupid but works.

Step 3: Knocking on the table is an excellent idea. Not my idea, but an excellent idea.

Calling out loud is not a good idea. I have good closed noise-cancelling headphones. If I play loud music, you can hear nothing of my music, and I hear nothing of you, no matter how loud you shout.


In addition to some of the answers that have already been provided, consider the degree of urgency associated with why you are getting somebody's attention.

If the matter is urgent, it is best to walk up to their desk without crowding them and lightly tap so that they can see out of the corner of their eye. This will get their attention immediately without it feeling like an intrusion of personal space.

On the other hand, if you are simply asking for help with something that is outside of the bounds of what they are responsible for (i.e. in this case where you are asking for help debugging) it might be best to simply send IM or e-mail asking for help when they are available.

A lot of people listen to music for enjoyment at work. Sometimes, however, putting in headphones might be to indicate that they do not want to be disturbed for some reason or another. This is why the second approach might be better since it allows them to get back to you on their own time.

Above all else, don't touch your co-workers unless you have some reason to firmly believe that is within the bounds of their level of comfort with you. This is especially true with co-workers of the opposite sex. It simply makes some people uncomfortable - so its best practice to avoid it completely. You will never make somebody at work uncomfortable by not touching them.


Pulling the earphones out might not hurt, but this doesn't matter.

First you need to ask you the following:

Why does someone have their ear phones plugged in during work?

Usually because this person wants to concentrate and wall off from the surroundings. Earphones limit the environmental influences to strengthen your focus. Imagine this like a bubble.

Why is it inappropriate to pull their head phones out or pat them on their back?

By making physical contact you are invading this bubble. Even worse is pulling some ones headphones out. I would get angry as f%&k. By simply stand next to de desk and wave,tab on the table or sending a message, you only knock on this bubble. You still let the person the chance to wave you off: "Not now".

Compare it with walking into someones house yelling "Hello" or useing the doorbell. Which would you prefer?

  • Your last paragraph is very culturally dependent. You ask it as a rhetorical question, but if you asked it as a real question you would get both answers. Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 9:38

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