45

My coworker, who sits right next to me, keeps mumbling to herself when she types or reads. It is a not-too loud, low-voice mumble that I can hear without understanding words.

It really irritates me and disturbs me from my own thinking, but I do not know if it is something normal to request and not come out as a rude person.

How can I ask her to stop without being rude?

  • 6
  • 12
    That is certainly related but in the linked question, OP didn't know that person. @Yohan, could you tell us more about your relationship with said coworker? Do you work together? Do you talk about personal stuff sometimes? Basically, how close are you with them? This information could really be helpful for answering the question. – avazula Jul 31 at 7:12
  • 1
    I'm too newbie to answer a protected Q at this site - but this is an issue that really goes into psychology. There are people who have an inner voice (most folks), or people that don't - the latter tend to mumble to themselves, either audibly or not audibly. I'm one of those that does it audibly. We are not silly, or weird in any way. We just don't have an inner voice and do it at audible levels. I can reference an awesome Sci Am issue on this. However, bottom line -- wear ear phones if you are in any way distracted by something as benign like this :) – AliceD Aug 2 at 22:57
  • @AliceD I have very sensitive ear canals and wearing ear plugs is painful and I also need to hear my colleagues if they want to speak to me. So it is not an option. Interestingly, I am also speaking to myself - but only at home when nobody hears! Yes speaking to yourself is helpful, but I am always conscious of how I behave in the public. Just my upbringing isnt letting me to do anything in the public that might disturb others. And it's very stressful to point such things to people because you will be seen as negative and even possibly passive-aggressive person.. – YohanRoth Aug 3 at 2:41
67

My roommate does almost the same thing. Like everyone, he talks to himself, but at times in a very elaborate manner. He makes gestures, sometimes voice goes up, and sometimes giggles too. It was weird at first, because I never saw someone do that. But as time clarified, he grew up like that.

When I am doing something important and he might start mumbling, I would look at him as if he said something and I missed it. Sometimes I would say "Pardon?".

This makes him conscious that he is audible (but I clarify, not understandable) to me. And he either lowers his voice or changes his actions. Since he is an outgoing person, he doesn't mind doing it outside either.

  • 2
    Outgoing person doesn't mean they like the outside. Outgoing means they are extroverted and like to be around people and are not shy. – Chloe Aug 3 at 2:36
  • @Chloe Haha, catch! At the time of writing, I thought it to be a mix of confident, not shy about this particular thing and comfortable doing this in public too. So if you get the gist, feel free to suggest an edit, I'll approve it. – ankii Aug 3 at 3:46
23

I had something of a similar situation - I had a coworker who cleared his throat every 30 seconds or so. I once made a joke about it to him ("Hey you keep it down over there!" in a joking way) and he didn't get it because he didn't know he was doing it. So I bought headphones. I can't correct someone else's behaviour but I can control what I hear.

My suggestion is to get yourself a good pair of headphones or something similar (if you office allows it). If not, ask your supervisor or manager if you can either move, work elsewhere, or if you can be the exception to the no-headphones rule.

You could also ask your coworkers what they've noticed and subsequently done. It didn't change anything about the situation, but when I knew I had coworkers who felt the same way and could either tell me what they did to fix this, or commiserate with them when we were annoyed.

  • 7
    If he / she didn't get it, maybe you should consider telling him / her directly instead? Making a joke out of it is a way for you not to have to tell directly - it is not particularly helpful for the person involved. "I can't correct someone else's behaviour" ... of course you can, to a certain point. – Maarten Bodewes Aug 1 at 10:49
  • 7
    You can’t correct someone else’s behavior, but you can suggest they do so. I say this without taking a position on whether you should. – WGroleau Aug 1 at 16:25
16

The other answers seem to focus on personal experiences related to yours, I'll instead focus on my experiences from the point of view of your co-worker. I mumble/gesture/talk to myself often. It's who I am and it's how I work.

The first thing that you should realize is that she may be doing it unconsciously. Asking her to stop likely won't result in anything. Instead, she'll be silent for a day or two, and then regress back to the same behavior. Bringing it up further will make her conscious of her behavior, and will detract heavily from her job.

The second thing that you should understand is that this is the way some people work. The benefit to talking out loud to yourself is the fact that you use a 'different' part of your brain to analyze what you're doing. I (and I suspect your co-worker) am an auditory and spatial learner. What that means is that if I listen to something, or I somehow use my spatial recognition, I understand it much better than purely visual/textual. Thus, whenever working on a complex problem, I talk and use gestures to activate my auditory and spatial analysis.


Now, obviously if she's talking at a loud volume, I don't see the harm in bringing it up. But quietly murmuring I believe is a lot to bring up. If you do, I sincerely believe you'll be impeding her ability to work.


Some of the other answers have suggested playing music / other workarounds for this situation, and have been asked to provide a direct answer rather than challenging the frame of the question. My issue with this is the fact that as someone who understands your co-worker's idiosyncrasies, I only see confrontation ending badly.

7

I can sympathize with both points of view. I myself am a sensory avoider, and my son, who has Tourette Syndrome, is a noisy sensory seeker. We both have to accommodate each other ... negotiate ... tolerate. This would be much more difficult if there weren't so much that we appreciate about each other.

In my answer, I will assume it is not possible for you and your officemate to be separated into different offices. I figure, if this were possible, you would have arranged for this already.

I will suggest a combination approach. I don't know exactly which of the following will be feasible for you, but I'll go ahead and write several options. Hopefully some of them can work for you.

  • Find an alternate location to work in for some part of the day, e.g. conference room, unused office, etc.

  • Gradually desensitize yourself to a background hum of human activity by spending some time regularly in a place that is not as quiet as you would ideally like. For example, do some email work in a coffee shop. Read a book on a bench at a neighborhood playground. It can be helpful to keep a log, including date, amount of time, and a rating of how much the background noise bothered you. Remind yourself from time to time that the ability to block out or shrug off background sounds will make life better for you over the long run.

  • Get to know your officemate better. Find commonality on whatever level you can. Build a positive, mutually satisfying relationship with her on some level. Attune yourself to her preferences about what to talk about, where to talk (e.g. go for a walk? have lunch together outside? share a funny youtube clip when you are taking your breaks? ask her which of two pairs of shoes (you're considering buying) she likes better, etc.).

  • Start with small requested changes, and offer options. For example: "I've got a tricky project to work on tomorrow, that will take about half an hour, and I'll need it to be quiet in the office. I've noticed that you talk often yourself through your tasks at your desk. During that half hour tomorrow, I'm going to need you to hold off on that self-talk, please. I could work on that project in the morning or in the afternoon. Is there a better time of day for that? In other words, do you have a preference for what time of day to have that quiet time?"

    At the beginning of the quiet half hour, put up a piece of paper or card stock on the wall, with "Quiet Time" written with a thick marker. When the half hour is up, take it down and put it away until the next time.

    Now, if she makes an effort during that half hour, make sure to show your appreciation, and give her positive feedback (even if her initial efforts weren't very effective).

    (Depending on her make-up, 30 minutes might be too much for a first step. You might need to make it five minutes.)

    During this phase, just pretend to be engaged in a tricky project. It's best to keep the stakes low in this first step.

  • If headphones with music or white noise help you, great. I personally tried this when I was in a three-person office and was uncomfortable -- but I found that the headphones approach made things worse for me. That approach drew my attention more to the distracting sounds, so it turned out to be counter-productive for me. But if it works for you, great.

protected by A J Jul 31 at 12:36

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.