8

My desk at work is in a small room shared with two other coworkers, let's call them Alice and Bob. Alice is in general a loud and outspoken / opinionated person, but doesn't talk much to either of us and is only in the office sporadically, maybe half the time.

What prompted this question: She was at her computer and out of the blue exclaimed "HOLY S**T!" and clapped once, loud enough my ears rang slightly (small room + whiteboard wall = very little dampening). She then said "[industry headline]!", I mumbled "oh, yeah, I heard about that". Someone else had heard her and stopped in the hallway, and she went to chat with them.

I didn't say anything else, just put on headphones and listened to music to calm down. People being loud like that makes me very anxious, especially when I'm not sure what it's about and I think they might be angry. My heart was racing for a while afterwards. However, that feels rather personal to say to a coworker I don't know well, just to justify why I'd like them not to shout in our shared office!

While this is the most anxiety-inducing incident so far, it's not the only time. More often it will be an abrupt and loud laugh, and a few times it's been an exclamation at computer issues. However, it typically doesn't seem intended to solicit conversation from me or Bob (doesn't say what she's laughing at, has headphones on, stays facing away from us, etc.).

I do think she can recognize when she's being loud, because when she laughs like that in team meetings she will sometimes cut off early and apologize. Also might be relevant: she's mentioned having ADHD, and maybe autism (not 100% sure if I'm remembering that correctly).

All in all I feel very awkward about saying anything. I'm not sure how to bring it up after the fact, especially since it's only once in a while that this happens and we don't typically talk more than "good morning". Or if I were to say something in the moment, I'm afraid it would come off as being a wet blanket or hostile.

So my current plan is to suck it up and keep using my headphones, but I'm interested to know if folks here have alternatives.

How could I ask her about toning down her outbursts?

  • How frequently do the outbursts happen? – Upper_Case-Stop Harming Monica Sep 18 at 18:16
  • @Upper_Case I'd guess at least once, sometimes more, on the days that she is in? It's a little hard to say because her schedule is irregular, so it could be days or a week in between. – Em C Sep 18 at 19:22
  • This question could also be asked on workplace.SE. Might even be better suited there as possible solutions might also involve your manager/HR (especially if Alice really has autism) – XtremeBaumer Sep 19 at 14:35
  • @XtremeBaumer I don't really want to involve my manager / HR at this point, since it's occasional enough I can manage. (Actually I almost didn't ask here either, but I figured why not check if there is some way to bring it up instead of not trying anything :) ) – Em C Sep 19 at 19:02
4

Here are the options I see. (You can do some mix & match.)

  1. Negotiate directly with Alice, using I-messages, with perhaps some support from others in your office, e.g. supervisor, someone who's a natural mediator, HR, Bob.

  2. Officially request support from your organization. You mentioned anxiety, so if you have disclosed an anxiety disorder, or would like to, anti-discrimination law might support you. This varies from one country to another. Even without disclosing your anxiety, you may be able to get support -- but I doubt you'll get any if you don't request it! Some possibilities: a change of office for you or her, accommodations that would support you, such as frequent breaks, creation of a calm zone. Some companies have a special room for nursing mothers. Perhaps you could get access to that room, and if it isn't set up as a cozy safe haven, perhaps you could make some modifications (furniture, lighting, acoustics, soothing music, etc.).

  3. Develop avoidance and coping techniques -- for example, when Alice enters the room, observe her, and if you see any red flags, step out for a short break, hopefully before the pressure cooker blows.

  4. Work on lowering your anxiety response. There are therapeutic methods which might be helpful.

It could be helpful to keep a log, with date, time, utterance, volume, and a rating of your response -- at the time, and at certain intervals thereafter. You can look at your physiological response and also the effect on your functioning. Knowledge is power!

Note that people often become jumpier as they get older, and the fight or flight response can be more easily triggered if one hasn't had time to properly recover from the last one.

Here is a book that may be helpful: Living Sensationally by Winnie Dunn.

You specifically asked about how to talk to her about toning down the outbursts. I want to make sure you are aware that that is not the only way to address the problem. Given your anxiety, and her explosiveness, in some ways, that might be the most difficult approach! However, if that's really how you want to proceed, then here are some thoughts:

  • I-messages may be perceived as less of an attack. Example: I jump out of my skin when there's a sudden loud noise in my vicinity, and then I have trouble concentrating. Pretend you are wearing someone else's hat while you are doing this, as it can help keep emotions out of it.

  • Maybe ask her to give you a warning before letting loose. For example, if she jumps out of her chair BEFORE pounding her fist on the desk and hollering, you might find that your response is not as strong.

  • If your timeline permits, and if there is any potential for a real authentic human connection between you, build rapport with her before initiating your negotiations.

    I did this recently in my Eurogames club. I noticed there was a player who had a booming voice. I have a hearing impairment and was having trouble hearing the players at my table whenever this guy was in the room. Then I hit on the idea of seeking him out to play with. I no longer had trouble hearing the people I was playing with! Also, after some weeks of playing with him once a week, we built up some rapport, and I was able to talk with him about the volume. We both came to understand each other better. By getting to know him first, my feedback was less hurtful to him than it might have been, coming out of the blue.

A note about the information I used to construct my answer: I am a sensory avoider but I live with a 16yo who is a sensory seeker, and has Tourette Syndrome and ADHD. I've read a lot about this mismatch and have experimented with coping mechanisms.

3

Somewhat of a Frame Challenge here, I don't think you should try to talk to her about it at all.

First of all to consider what is going on with her: It is likely that there is a combination of instinct and habit, her impulsive instinct is to react loudly to anything she finds remarkable. Most of us have a similar instinctual urge to make a startled outburst, but our habit, reinforced by social conditioning is to mute that in any situation where it doesn't actually require us to alert the other apes to danger. Your workmate's habit is, for whatever reasons, to amplify her instinctive response to surprise to ensure everyone else is also surprised.

There is no indication that she is doing this with the intention of annoying or upsetting anyone, so you probably want to guard against making any bigger deal about it than is necessary. You don't want to become the fragile flower that colleagues have to tiptoe around. You already hardly have any interaction, so any special conversation you initiate about this could end up looming large as the longest conversation you've ever had with her... and its about how she's in the wrong.

No matter the justice or accuracy of that, you have to think about the downstream effects. Will that result in you being a person she feels respectful of and wants to accommodate or does it risk her seeing you as someone who only speaks to others when needed to get their own way? Something doesn't have to be true for someone to see it that way, and it can have a longer term effect on office co-habitation.

That doesn't mean there isn't a solution, but it is likely that interruption of the habit in the moment it happens will be more effective. Essentially, you cannot change her instinct, but you may help her moderate her habit. But to be realistic, you probably won't be seeing an instant change. Habits take time to make and to break.

So if I don't think you should talk to her about it, what do I think you should do? Holla back, respond in kind, in the moment. She shouts 'Holy Shit!' you shout 'You broke my eardrums!', 'Call 911, you gave me a heart attack!' or 'OMG What? Is the world ending?!' and take it from there, but keep it light and jokey, while making the point that whenever she shouts you will shout back.

The only citation I have for this is that it is the technique I used on my nephews when they exhibited this behaviour as children, I didn't 'give them a telling off' or plead with them to change, I just responded in kind until they got the message that they were over-reacting to a ridiculous degree.

-2

IMHO, this is a question about how to deal with Asperger's, which I will explain...

First, you said:

Also might be relevant: she's mentioned having ADHD, and maybe autism (not 100% sure if I'm remembering that correctly).

...yes, it is very relevant. Asperger is along that same ADHD-Autism spectrum. The moment you described the loud "clap" and outburst, I thought of this.

I have a lot of experience dealing with friends, students, and coworkers who have Asperger and I recognize two things right away: Asperger and Leveler Mode.

Based on my experience, you must use the most direct communication possible, genuinely caring for the person, and explaining how you feel. You must assume that your coworker has no idea that you feel the way you do.

Consider a few ideas and quotes from these two important topics:

1. Asperger syndrome (wiki)

About Asperger (or something similar)

Some people need to learn social skills much the way one learns a golf swing. Your coworker probably never considered that clapping that loud or speaking that loud is alarming to others. She may not want to be told either, but if you can get through to her, probably through kindness and explanation, she may be glad you did.

Advice from a person with Asperger's to other people with Asperger's:

Instead of memorizing specific responses to specific situations, learn to understand the reasons behind a social situation. Train yourself to think through what other people expect from a situation, and ponder how you can help meet the expectations of others and make the interaction more positive.

How To Learn Social Skills With Asperger’s Syndrome

The above quote is not intended for you, but for people like your coworker trying to understand you. By understanding this quote, you may understand how your coworker thinks.

In fact, just tonight, I came off of a four hour conversation with a friend who shows some Asperger traits. At one point, he told me that I have no friends. Rather than being offended, I recognized the comment as "socially challenged" (in the Asperger flavor of that) and responded in Leveler Mode:

Are you aware that today you are "Asper-splaining" a little more than usual?

(We have the rapport where we can talk openly about Asperger with each other. In fact, most people with Asperger's traits somewhat like the label, in my experience.)

All of the negativity dropped and he shifted right into what was really on his mind: artwork. I simply said the most direct and literal version of what was on my mind. That is "Leveler Mode"...

2. Satir's five modes (particularly 'Leveler')

Asperger and Leveler Mode can have an overlap: People with Autism Spectrum Disorder Take Things Literally. So, it may seem off topic, but Asperger and Leveler Mode are very related! If you think someone shows Asperger traits, interacting in Leveler Mode just might do the trick.

About "Leveler Mode"

This "mode" is when someone speaks very, very literally. It can be off-putting, but not meant to be affrontive. The best way to deal with a "Leveler" is to just "level back", speaking literally and directly in return. In general, training yourself to not fear raised voices is the first step.

The Leveler response is the most effective behavior for solving problems creatively. Their body posture communicates the idea that they are being to true to what they think. They come across as ‘on the level’, centered and factual.

5 Satir Categories for Understanding Communication Styles

The Leveler does just what Dr. Satir’s term implies; this person levels with you. When the Leveler is genuine, there is nothing simpler to deal with — just level back.

Verbal Self-Defense: Chapter 2 – The Five Satir Modes

Possible solution:

Next time she shouts like that, be happy, confident, not the least "careful" in your approach, and say this with a smile in your voice:

"Alice, I'm glad you are getting things done, but my ears are ringing, literally. Could you warm up your voice or something before you celebrate in the future. Or, at least invite me to the party and tell me what is so interesting."

That is literal (Leveler Mode) and helps explain the social situation to your coworker. It is also friendly (inviting and hoping for more interaction) and a little comical (good for diplomacy).

Another approach, maybe a little more bold...

Alice, might you have Asperger's or something similar? (if so...) Do you mind if I point it out when you do something that is really socially strange, or at least if it is troublesome for me?

...You might not even need to say why.

  • @Ælis How are those edits? Maybe it's just because I'm a little new on IPS, but I kind of expected people to do the reading in the H1 tags. But, perhaps it is best to just explain some of those ideas in the reading all over again here in my answer, to make my answer more useful. I'm learning and trying to get into how the people on IPS like their answers formulated. Thanks for this. Tell me if it can be improved more. – Jesse Steele Sep 19 at 14:23
  • It's better. Answers on IPS are expected to stand on their own, without having to read through links. However, I think your answer is still missing some back up. Did you face a similar situation in the past where you successfully used this technic? – Ælis Sep 19 at 16:24
  • Yes, I work with situations like this all the time, an Asperger operating in Leveler Mode. The important parts about both Asperger and Leveler Mode I included. That's why I recognize it. And, it's not a "technique", it's an "understanding" of the person, so I always know what to do, even with small changes from one situation to another. If someone tried a "technique" on Alice it would backfire because Asperger Levelers are immune to those and get irritated when people try. One can't "technique" with an Asperger-Leveler by definition; they must be "understood". – Jesse Steele Sep 19 at 16:38
  • 2
    It's good practice across SE to quote relevant passages from links that you post in case those links break at some point in the future. – Rainbacon Sep 19 at 16:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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