Having spent years, and years, and years (honestly, it feels like eons sometimes) in an office environment, I think I can officially pronounce myself an expert in office etiquette. I don’t have a medal, or a certificate, or a fancy diploma, or a fez with a fun tassel (fez’s are cool) to prove my expertise, but I promise, I am an expert. Though, truth be told, some of said expertise is actual and some of it is totally because I’m petting my peeves, but all will be totally worth your while.
Whether you have worked in an office environment or not, you’ll probably find this as helpful as you will amusing. See, even if you don’t work in an office, a lot of this is just common sense, best practice stuff that you can apply to your everyday life.
I need to also say that while this is about working in an office and the etiquette practices therein, I want to further clarify that I am mostly referring to those of us 9-5ers (ha-ha) who work in a cubed office environment. More commonly referred to as The Cube Farm.
Let’s start with an easy one. Something everyone wants to have but that mostly no one gets. Nothing in The Cube Farm is private. Nothing. Or, mostly nothing. Just understand that it is likely everyone knows everyone else’s business all the time and you’ll already be on the road to success.
The Office Gossip (TOG). She (well…TOG could be a he, but for the sake of this argument, let’s let her rip) makes it known that she knows everything. She is the one to track you down on your first day simply to tell you that she is the eyes and ears of the place and if there’s anything to know, she’ll know it. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. She wants you to spill…immediately…and will pressure you until you do. Depending on your own personality, and how much you want everyone else in the office to know about yourself, it’s probably wise to steer clear.
The Connected One (TCO). TCO knows everyone. Literally and figuratively. TCO is your personal 6-degrees of separation. You used to work there? Oh, do you know so-and-so? You live where? Oh, do you know… You get the picture. And heaven forbid if TCO finds out that you and they know someone in common (or several someones in common) because every time that someone makes a move, TCO is gonna tell you about it. TCO is great for networking, though.
Beware if TOG and TCO are one and the same. That’s a recipe for disaster! I suggest you hide. Just a couple examples of some Privacy Pirates that you might encounter.
If you’re an average Joe or Jane, sitting in your little cube, doing your work, going about your day, minding your own bees-wax, then you’ll probably escape any lasting damage. But offices employ many, many different kinds of people. I shall shout fervently: WHY CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG? Here are a few pointers that might help when it comes to maintaining your privacy.
Never enter someone else’s cubicle without permission. I’ve seen it said in other places that you want to behave as if there is a door and knock, tap, or employ some other gentle method to get the attention of the person in that cube without simply barging in. You don’t like it when folks barge in on you, right? So why would you do it to someone else?
Try not to sneak up behind someone in a cube. See above.
Let others know when you can and cannot be interrupted. Well, yeah – I admit this one is kind of tricky. You don’t want to be interrupted and really don’t have time to tell anyone not to interrupt you so, now what? Well, some offices will allow you to post a flag, or a small sign, or a rotating magnet like you might put on your dishwasher to let the rest of the family know the dishes are clean or dirty. Wait…sorry. Hang on. The rotating office magnet should probably say something like busy and available, not clean and dirty.
Prairie Dogging. The end-all be-all of office interruptions. The popping up of heads all over The Cube Farm to see what’s going on. Up down. Up down. I feel like I need a giant hammer and so I can play a gratifying game or two of Office Whack-a-Mole. Aside from the dogs just being annoying, it’s an invasion of privacy. You do not need to see what is on the other side of that wall so badly that you can’t walk over there.
Loitering outside another’s cube. Totally rude, Dude! Don’t hang out while you wait for the occupant to finish a phone conversation. First of all, you have no idea how long that call is going to last and you could potentially be standing there forever. Kind of foolish, if you ask me. Secondly, if you see someone is otherwise engaged, it is just common courtesy to come back at another time. Common courtesy is, sadly, lacking these days.
Looking at other people’s stuff. Yep. We’ve all done it. The quick flick of the eyes to the monitor screen in front of you, whether it is your screen or not. The information contained on the screen of a co-worker does not apply to you. Period.
Listening to other people’s stuff. In The Cube Farm, it’s next to impossible not to hear your co-worker’s conversations. They’re on the phone or talking with other co-workers all day long. Sometimes it’s hard not to listen, but try. Don’t comment on overheard conversations, or answer overheard questions either. What someone is discussing with someone else does not apply to you. Period.
Touching other people’s stuff. We’ve established that cubes don’t have doors. Doors are a visual representation of privacy. There is definitely something to be said for doors. Doors rock. The lack of a door does not mean you can help yourself to whatever is contained within another’s space. The pens, pencils, sticky notes, paper clips and various other office supplies are not yours, are not meant for you and should not even be borrowed without permission from the occupant. This goes for food, drinks, and stuffed animals. (Hey – we all have a stuffed animal at our desks, right?)
As you’ve gone through your day in The Cube Farm, have you ever heard something that drove you nuts? Or something that was so…off…that you felt the need to go investigate? Like that anecdote about children; if they’re quiet, you need to check on them because probably someone is doing something they’re not supposed to?
Any office has sounds you cannot avoid: typing, ringing, the hum of the white-noise maker, which is supposed to drown out or muffle sound but tends to just make more noise. The air conditioner or heat coming on and off. The microwave beeping in the break room. The ice machine dropping ice into the bin. The hum of the vending machines. People walking, talking, drumming their fingers out of boredom or insanity because the conference call they’re on is now going into its second hour.
The Gum Popper. Om nom nom. Chomp chomp. Pop. Oh and the snapping. Don’t forget the snapping. They don’t even realize they’re doing it.
Slap Happy. The one who wears nothing but flip-flops year-round, even though they’re totally against the dress code, and does laps around the office twice hourly because they are getting their exercise by not taking the shortcuts everyone else uses. Slap. Slap. Slap. Oh, there they go. Wait! Slap. Slap. Slap. There they go again. What’s this, their fourth or fifth round this hour? Shall we take bets?
The Loud Food Eater. If the gum chewing wasn’t bad enough, there’s this guy. Constantly eating. Snacks. Crackers. Chew chew chew. And that thing he does when he’s got something stuck in his teeth? Shudder.
The Talker. This is the person who talks on the phone all the time, as loudly as they can. Or yells across The Cube Farm to the person four rows away to find out if they have any Ibuprofen. Or holds mini conferences outside their cube. It’s enough to drive anyone mad. Wait! Who has the headache?
A few descriptions of Annoying Animals in The Cube Farm for your amusement. I would like to put to you, dear readers, to be mindful of others as you move about the office during the day. Be considerate. Be aware of how your voice can carry or how the crinkling of the wrapper from your second bag of chips can be disruptive to your neighbor and that loud conversations are distracting and disruptive. And I haven’t even begun to talk about phones. That being said, let’s consider this further, shall we?
Ringing desk phones. We know that ringing phones are a product of being in an office. But did you know that the new-fangled technology we have these days allows you to adjust the volume of the ringer on your desk phone? You may be hard of hearing, but did you take into consideration that your neighbor might hear just fine thank you very much? A lot of office phone models have a little red light that blinks or flashes when you have an incoming call. If you place your ringer low enough for you to still hear it and within your range of vision (try peripheral, it’s awesome) you’ve got two layers of assurance you won’t miss a call.
Ringing cell phones. Turn ‘em off, people. Just turn them off. Or, set them to vibrate or silent ring. You do not need to have your personal cell phone on you all the time. Yep. I am like most of the rest of you, attached to my technology at the hip, but even I turn my ringer down, or off completely during the day. Your employer is not paying you to text (beep), play games, (boop), or chat (ring) all day long. And please, for the love of all that is good and peaceful in this world, do not leave your cell phone – ringer on – on your desk and then walk away. None of the rest of us need to listen to your Minion Ba-Na-Na PO-TA-TO ring tone over and over again. (Although props for a good choice of ring tone.)
Speaker phone conversations. Oh my. This one walks a fine line between being one of those aforementioned peeves I’ve been petting and being actual office etiquette. I haven’t weighed the scale to determine which side is heavier. But, if you must have a conversation using speaker phone, remember these key points: 1) Everyone else can hear you, and everyone else can hear the person on the other end of the line. 2) If you know about the call ahead of time, reserve a conference room so you can have a closed door between your speaker phone conversation and the rest of The Cube Farm. Your fellow dogs will thank you.
Voice Volume. If you’re a naturally loud talker, I understand. So am I. I’ve been known to burst my own ear drums from time to time. That’s another story. But there are these wonderful inventions called headsets. They are not only for comfort and convenience, but they also allow for a quieter (and more private) conversation. If you don’t have a headset for your desk phone, talk to someone who might be able to rectify that for you. They’re a good idea and should be standard equipment, right along with your computer and a monitor and a phone.
Tech Sounds. If you use email or instant messaging to communicate with your co-workers, turn the sounds off. Those dings and bings are enough to turn Dr. Banner into his big, mean, green friend with little to no warning.
Music. If you are one of the bazillion people who like to listen to music during their work day, unless your office management says otherwise, it’s okay to use ear buds or headphones. Just remember not to get too zoned out, just in case you’re called by the little red flashy light on your phone or the loiterer outside your cubicle.
Are you feeling the burn yet? Think you can manage a couple more reps? Good. Let’s keep going.
Last on my list of things to discuss in the world of office etiquette is (drumroll please) smells. Odor. Scent. The things your sniffer sniffs out and process into four categories: good, bad, ugly and really, really offensive. (Points if you can get both random movie references there.)
The Scent Hound. Like a bloodhound to the scent of a missing person, the rest of us can smell you coming a mile away or follow your trail every place you’ve been. Your odor lingers when you pass through in such a way that one can almost see the molecules of your scent du jour hanging like a fog in the air. Patchouli does not equal bath.
The Lunch Eater. Here, ladies and gentlemen, we have The Lunch Eater. Sitting at his desk during lunch time, single-mindedly putting away the pastrami on rye he got from the local deli. Complete with onions, mustard and pickles. On the side, salt and vinegar potato chips. Look at him, ladies and gentlemen. Take note of how smoothly his arms raise the dripping sandwich to his mouth and how purposefully he bites, how possessively he chews. Beware. He is at his meanest at lunch time.
The Stink Monster. Stinky needs no qualifiers. Stinky is the leftover salmon for lunch eating, microwave popcorn burning, close-talking halitosis having, run the other way when you see him coming co-worker. Add in a layer of bad cologne and last week’s shirt (complete with armpit funk) and all I have to say is, “Eeeewwww!” It is Odoriferous Odiousness I share with you, my fellows. Let’s tone it down some, shall we? We, your co-workers, are breathing this air, too. You do know that, right? Perfumes, colognes, body sprays, organic natural oils, scented hand lotions, hair sprays…what do they have in common? They all should be totally avoided in The Cube Farm. Period. Those of us with breathing issues like asthma or allergic sensitivities will thank you. File this under how to win friends and influence people. Not the book though. I mean it in the most literal sense.
However loudly you may complain about others, how loudly are they complaining about you? Take some time to think about your habits and ask yourself these questions:
1) Does it invade or affect another’s privacy?
2) Does it make noise and if so, how loud or obnoxious would I, personally, consider that noise to be?
3) Does it smell? Period.
I am not judging. We are all individuals and we all have our own little quirks. Some of us get along really well, some of us don’t. Sometimes the best we can hope for is tolerance. But as I leave you to go silently into that good night (or day, depending) I ask that you truly and openly think about those you encounter at your office every day. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll begin to see just what part of the corporate puzzle they play, and if you’re really lucky, maybe you’ll be able to fit that piece in exactly the right place. Also, if you have very strong feelings about indivudual Privacy Pirates, Annoying Animals or Odoriferous Odiousness-es, talk to your manager about the best, most thoughtful, and least offensive or hurtful way to approach. You could be doing them a favor.
While it’s absolutely impossible to please everyone all the time, your consideration of the above-mentioned things won’t go unnoticed. Your fellow Cube Farm occupants will thank you. They may not thank you personally, but they’ll thank you. Believe me.