Chewing Noises That Won’t Stop

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about chewing noises:

I work in a quiet office environment where cubicles are situated side by side. The gal next to me eats food, chews gum and hard candies all day long. I believe she may have a medical condition because she seemingly has to have some sort of substance in her mouth most of the day.I am unable to concentrate because the sounds drive me absolutely nuts. She is a really nice gal and we don’t talk too often so it’s hard for me to mention this problem to her. Neither one of us are social butterflies and I’m sure it will create an awkward situation that may not be worth it. She is literally driving me to hate my job so I’m seeking advice to how I can address this issue to her without sounding too harsh or inconsiderate myself.

Keep in mind she does not know that I am annoyed or that I even hear her. She is on her headphones listening to books all day so I’m sure she is oblivious to the fact I can hear her munching food all day long. Another thing to note is we have worked side by side for almost 8 months and this had only started happening about 2 months ago. She must be coping w/ stress recently by eating or something, I don’t know. Another thing; I have mentioned to my co-workers in the general area to see what they think about the noise and it seems I am the only one that is bothered by it. They’ve all confirmed they can hear it but I’m shunned for being bothered by it. Keep in mind I work with a group of women that all enjoy eating at their desk as well; just not as constantly as the mentioned Irritant.

Signed, Going Nuts

Dear Going Nuts:

There are several issues in your message, so I’ll comment on all of them as a way to get to the issue about chewing noises.You say you have mentioned this to others and they don’t hear the noise. Worse yet, they have shunned you for mentioning it to them. That’s rather excessive unless they think you were harsh in your comments, or if there are other things going on and this just adds to it.You may find you will benefit from working to establish better relationships all the way around. If you don’t have friendships there now, I doubt they will develop. But, perhaps things can improve a bit if you are viewed as part of the group rather than apart from it.You say you aren’t a social butterfly. It isn’t necessary to be that outgoing and involved to be effective. It may be that you don’t communicate in an open friendly fashion on a regular basis. You don’t have to be continually talking or laughing to be part of the office team in a sociable way.

Perhaps having a better relationship with everyone will build a foundation for helping you with this situation. At least, it can’t hurt. I would like to think that the coworker is not aware of the noise she is making, because she is wearing headphones. But I find it hard to believe the others haven’t told her what you said. Thus, she is either waiting for you to talk to her in person, or she doesn’t see a reason to change. Or, she genuinely isn’t aware of it. Make this a comfortable and upfront conversation about the quirks of working in a small work setting. Keep in mind that you aren’t asking too much. Everyone has to adjust their styles and habits when they are right next to someone else all day. Hopefully there is nothing you are doing that she feels she is retaliating about!

The next time she starts being noisy, just tap her arm to get her attention and say, with an apologetic smile, “Karen, I hate to say anything because I know you don’t realize you’re making noise. But, with this cubicle set-up it seems like chewing and eating candy and food just reverberates. Could you tone it down a bit please?”

You could add that probably she can’t hear it because of the headphones. Or, you could say you’ve put off saying anything because she is so nice that you didn’t want to cause bad feelings. It won’t hurt to be extra nice about it, while you are still being firm that it is a bothersome and distracting situation.If she doesn’t respond as you hope, you will need to talk to a supervisor about it. Say what has happened and the affect it has on your work. Tell the supervisor what you did to make things better and what was the result. Ask the supervisor for advice or assistance about how to handle it.

Don’t let it just drop. It won’t get better. Also, don’t accept the suggestion that you wear headphones yourself. That isn’t the solution!You may want to suggest that the supervisor be present while you once again ask the employee to lower the level of noise while chewing and eating. If that takes place in the supervisor’s office or a conference room, it will certainly have more impact.

To keep this from being more awkward than necessary, try to keep the approach that it’s just part of working in an office setting and that you know no one intends to be disruptive. That kind of acceptance often takes the sting out of a complaint.Best wishes as you work to deal with this. I know it can be challenging. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.