Cubicle Partner Won’t Talk To Me

Question:

For nearly two months I have been sharing a cubicle with a Lebanese man half my age. I am 53, female and used to being social. At first I tried to be friendly and make conversation, but he rarely responds. We now say only the briefest of good mornings and comment on the weather. I try to tune him out i.e. wear headphones and pretend we’re not working back to back in such close quarters. I think he’s kind of surprised I’ve stopped trying to engage him in conversation. Still, he never makes any attempt at conversation with me. I don’t know if responding in kind is the best way to handle the situation, but I feel frustrated and angry that if I don’t talk, we sit in silence all day. Please advise.

Signed,

Silent Partner


Answer:

Dear Silent Partner:

Sharing a cubicle is difficult at best, and this doesn’t sound like best! This situation needs a brief investigation on your part, to clarify the situation so you will know your best response.

Consider these things: Does he speak to others freely, but not to you? Does he speak to men freely, but not to women? Does he speak to people his own age freely, but not to those who are older? Is he talkative in meetings or in the breakroom, but not talkative at work? Does he speak English fluently? Do you know his history well enough to know if he has had conflicts before and may be reacting to that? The answer to any or all of those questions may lead you to a better understanding of the situation. Now, think about your conversations with him. You say you tried to be friendly and make conversation, and that you are used to being social. Did he move into your workspace or did you move into his? Or were you both given cubicles together at the same time? It could be he has been used to a very different kind of work situation and finds your conversation to be excessive, or distracting. That would depend upon what kind of work the two of you do, and how much conversation you were trying to initiate.

When you say he rarely responded, I wondered if that meant he literally ignored you, acting as though you had not spoken, or if he did not respond at length or responded with on a curt word or two. If he acted as though you had not spoken and ignored you as though you weren’t talking to him, that would be a problem you should discuss with a supervisor, since his behavior would not be effective for work.

Also consider the nature of your conversation. Did you ask open questions that would require him to answer, or discuss an issue, or did you make statements or only exchange small talk? I don’t know that is a problem, but it is always good to look at whether or not he felt he had a reason to respond.

Now, for what to do. The first thing is to discuss the matter with your supervisor, in a non-complaining way. Your supervisor may have a perspective you do not have. Tell your supervisor that you feel frustrated by all of it, but do not want to be accused of bothering the employee. Ask for suggestions. Ask your supervisor if he or she minds if you try to increase the level of conversation between you and the co-worker.

There are two approaches to take if you do talk to your co-worker. One is more subtle: Purposely find things about work that require his response and action, then discuss those with him. Perhaps if he gets used to talking about work with you, he might be more likely to talk to you more personally.

The second response is more direct: Be honest with your co-worker. Walk in and say hello and smile. Then, smile some more and say something like, “I’m used to being social with the people around me. I notice you’re a lot quieter than I am. But I have a hard time sitting here not talking at all! What have you done in the past, about conversation with people sitting near you?” Get him talking for a few minutes, if you can. You might say, “Tell you what. I’ll promise not to talk too much when you’re trying to work, if we can chat some when we have some free time. You can pick the topic!” Or consider bringing in a photo of a family member, friend, pet or whatever and putting it somewhere discreet. But, before you do, call it to his attention, then ask if he has photos he’d like to post. That might encourage him to talk a bit.

But while you are doing all of this, remind yourself that just as you like to be social, he probably likes to be quiet and focus on work. If he is doing a good job, the response of management may be that he is not required to talk. However, I do think all employees should maintain a friendly communications habit. Ask another co-worker if he or she has an observation about any aspects of your communication with your co-worker. Their views may be helpful. Or, they may have had the same problem, which would at least let you know it’s not all you.

The bottom line is that I don’t think the current situation is a good one. You aren’t happy, and your co-worker obviously notices the difference in your behavior. So, one way or another, this needs to be resolve. Start by clarifying what you consider to be the foundation of the problem, then talk to your supervisor before you talk to your co-worker.

Best wishes with this. Please let us know what happens if you have the time and wish to do so.

Tina Lewis Rowe