The sound of people eating is my personal hell. Crunching chips. Slurping coffee. Gnawing on a sandwich. These sounds (and visuals) don’t just bother me, they quite literally make me want to scream, slap, or isolate myself in a soundproof cave. Almost equally as bad are the sounds of heavy breathing, sniffling, and pen-clicking.
Turns out I’m not (entirely) insane: I, along with an unknown number of other people, suffer from a condition called misophonia. According to recent research published in the journal Current Biology, people with this disorder have an abnormality in their brain’s frontal lobe, which causes them to have an outsized emotional reaction upon hearing triggering sounds. Personally, it’s also caused me to have ample dinner-table arguments with my parents, friends, and partner. (Not to mention one poor soul I cursed in my college dining hall for slobbering all over his spaghetti and slurping red sauce while I was trying to read.) But nowhere do I face more frustrations than at the office.
While some people couldn’t care less about annoying sounds, for others, munching, snorting, and loud conversations—as well as powerful smells—can derail focus and productivity on a daily basis. The rise of open-office layouts, in which privacy is the stuff of folklore and desk lunches reign supreme, means these issues have only proliferated.
There’s no cure for misophonia, and headphones aren’t always an option. So, with the help of Patricia Rossi, an expert in business etiquette, Quartz created the definitive guide for when, under what circumstances, and how to confront colleagues about their annoying sounds.
What issues are appropriate to confront?
A lot of things that annoy us in life are really our problem—not anyone else’s. Rossi says it’s essential to distinguish between habits that another person can easily fix, and personal traits that are impossible, or very difficult, to change. Her rule is simple: If someone can fix the issue in less than five minutes, you can confront them. If not, confronting them will likely be rude and polarizing.
Aggressive chewing, pen clicking, or loud phone conversations? Fixable in less than five minutes. Accent you find annoying, asthmatic breathing, or sneezing from a cold? Not fixable in less than five minutes, so stay mum.
When should you confront?
Rossi suggests you resist confrontation until the bothersome sound or smell becomes a pattern. If your deskmate has a slurpy soup for lunch one day, it’s best to plug in earphones and disengage. But if he chews loudly or wears pungent cologne every day, that’s a different story. As a general guideline, Rossi advises waiting until you’ve been disrupted by the sound or smell at least three times, in relatively close succession.
What’s more, you should only confront colleagues if their sounds and smells substantially affect your work. If the smell of Jen’s daily tuna sandwich makes you nauseous and unable to focus, go for it. If her constant finger tapping gives you a headache, it’s okay to speak up. But if her chip-crunching or off-tune humming only distracts you for a few seconds, hold back.
How should you confront?
“Delivery is absolutely everything,” Rossi repeatedly stresses. More often than not, people are not aware of the sounds they are making. If you confront them aggressively, or imply they are to blame for your annoyance, you’ll embarrass them at best, create an enemy at worst. The most important rule is to “always keep it light,” says Rossi.
Of course, delivery style depends on how well you know the colleague. If it’s your work wife, it’s fine to ask them straight up, “Sorry to bug, but would you be okay with not eating apples at our desk? I can’t focus when you do.” Still, it’s better to have a sense of humor. For a voluble colleague, Rossi suggests a quip like, “Wow, you sure are passionate on those phone calls.”
With colleagues you’re not as close with, follow Rossi’s three Ls: Love, laugh, and listen. First and foremost, make a friendly appeal, and put the blame onto yourself. Next, use self-deprecating humor to make your request light, not offensive.
For example, “You know I’m always impressed by your home-cooked lunches, and I know this sounds weird, but I have a hard time focusing when people are chewing around me at work. It’s totally my fault, my parents used to make me eat in my room because they couldn’t stand my complaining. But would you mind chewing more quietly?”
Most importantly, listen to your colleague’s response. Thank them if they’re receptive. And if they seem offended, or imply that the sound or smell is due to something they cannot change (like a health disorder), be sure to apologize and revoke your request.
As for medium, in-person is almost always better, says Rossi. Tone and meaning can be easily misinterpreted via text, while smiles and laughs ensure communication stays light in-person. However, if you know a colleague to be easily embarrassed or shy, send them a short, friendly message via Slack or Gchat instead, as it gives space and time to react.
What if the problem doesn’t go away?
If the sound or smell persists after you’ve kindly spoken with your colleague, you have two options, says Rossi. Ideally, purchase some high-quality noise-canceling earphones and leave your desk when the sound is bad. Or, if it’s seriously impacting your work, discuss the issue privately with HR or management. If a substantial number of people are bothered by the same issue—say, desk eating—leadership should consider setting office-wide norms.
“It’s always best to be honest with yourself and others when you’re annoyed at work,” says Rossi, “but there’s certainly a line between effective and offensive, and you should always be solutions-oriented.”