Sunflower Seeds And Sniffing!


My cubicle neighbor constantly sniffs her nose due to her allergies & won’t take medicine. When she isn’t sniffing, she sucks on sunflower seeds like a cow. It’s so annoying. I can’t stand it. I want to scream at her to shut up but know I can’t do that! Others are also bothered by her constant annoying noises that are around her, but no one knows how to tell an adult to chew with their mouth shut or blow their nose!! It wouldn’t be so bad if it was just once in awhile, but it is mon-fri 8-5. all day, everyday. I need help.


Ready To Scream


Dear Ready To Scream:

This kind of situation can become a permanent distraction and source of conflict in a workplace, so it needs to be handled. Let me offer some suggestions about it.

Some of these will sound almost comical because it will sound as though I’m suggesting you investigate a crime! But, I know from experience that this or any other problem has to be looked at factually not emotionally.

1. Do your best to take your emotions out of it. Keep the focus on how all of this links to the ability of you and others to work effectively. When you discuss it or write about it, as I will suggest in a moment, put the major emphasis on work effectiveness–although it is appropriate to mention some personal feelings, as I will explain.

2. I can tell this is someone you don’t like very well. Usually we respond differently to the distracting habits of those we like than we do about those we do not like. The result is it’s difficult for supervisors and managers to know what part of the complaint is just you disliking someone and what is a genuine work concern.

If you have a history of talking badly about her, complaining about many things or being unfriendly, that will not help your efforts. Even using descriptions like “cow” to describe what she does can come across badly. (Although I know it’s a temptation to use those terms.)

Keep to just the facts and the effect on work. Don’t let yourself be seen as being as unpleasant to deal with as the coworker.

3. First option: Say something directly to the employee. This will be easier to do if you have the support of coworkers, in case she talks to them. I will advise you the same thing I advise supervisors: The first time you talk to her try to start only with the day you’re talking to her rather than discussing months and years before. That will be much, much easier for you.

Supervisors sometimes have to bring up the history of a problem. You may need to say it’s happened before. But, try to limit your first conversation to the most recent situation.

If you’re at your desk and she is making a repetitious noise that is bothersome, go to her cubicle and say in a non-public way, “Rita, I simply can’t concentrate when there is the distraction of someone making noises over and over and that’s what is happening. I’m hearing you chew on those sunflower seeds and I’m hearing you sniff every few seconds. Could you please not be noisy when you’re snacking and would you blow your nose or do something to keep from sniffing over and over? I’d really appreciate it.”

She will probably get on the defensive, but you’ve asked nicely. AND, you have only mentioned that moment in time. You haven’t unloaded about behavior over the last months or years that no one ever talked to her about.

4. Second option, either after or instead of you talking to her yourself. Report this to your supervisor and ask for assistance to solve the problem. Be prepared to report about it factually and in a clear manner. Keep a record for a few hours. Don’t let it get in the way of your work, but try to document accurately for a morning or afternoon.

This will sound funny, but really it will help to know: How many times does she sniff in ten or twenty minutes? How many days or weeks has it been happening? What amount of time in a work day do you hear her eating a sunflower seed or spitting it out or whatever? When does the noise stop? When does it sound loud enough that you can hear it again?

Those kind of brief timelines can be very effective for conveying what you are experiencing without emotional terms. For example, even if it seems someone is doing something “all the time”, it probably is not the case. But, if you say someone made slurping, sucking and chewing noises for ten minutes while eating sunflower seeds, then stopped to talk on the phone for three minutes and started again and continued for the next thirty minutes, THAT sounds factual.

Another thing that sounds to do that sounds like you’re investigating a crime: If you can observe the quantity of sunflower seeds she goes through, that is helpful too. For example, if you see a large bag of seeds on her desk and it is empty by the end of the day, that would explain why the noise is almost constant. So, you can factually say she goes through a large bag of sunflower seeds every day. If she makes one seed last for an hour, that says something too.

Has she ever said anything about eating sunflower seeds, to explain why she eats them so much? That would be good to discuss when you ask for help about this. Has she talked about her sniffles and why she doesn’t take medication? That would also be good to mention.

Has anyone ever talked to her about it? What was the result? That should also be included in anything you write or say about this.

The idea is this: You need to talk to your supervisor and ask for help. That is the person who ought to deal with it. Just make sure you can show the link to work. It isn’t just that you don’t like her to sniffle or suck sunflower seeds. The problem is that the incessant and repetitious noise is distracting and makes it hard to concentrate.

Don’t just complain, ask for a resolution to the problem. If you know of others who have mentioned it, ask that they be contacted about it too.

5. If you don’t feel you can talk to your supervisor, talk to someone in an HR or personnel management capacity and ask them for advice.

6. Consider this as one way to help if you can’t get the coworker to change; or even if you can. Get a “white noise” machine and put it on your desk or the floor near your desk and adjust it as needed. If you get a machine that makes nature sounds, etc., put the sound on “waterfall” so it’s just a roar. However, I prefer the round ones that simply make a whooshing sound.

Those are used in many offices to mask sounds. You may decide that you can avoid talking to her if you use that machine. However, ask your supervisor if it is OK. It makes a noise of its own, of course, but it’s not one that most people notice or complain about. It’s more like the sound of a fan that is constant and consistent in modulation.

In the meantime, be the best employee and the best coworker you can be. Perform and behave in such a way that your concerns will be important to your manager and others.

I know this type of thing can be frustrating, but perhaps you can find a resolution or at least a way to deal with it without screaming! Best wishes to you. 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.