Heroic Restraint in the Presence of Excess Noise

Note: Some minor edits/changes have been made to the original post.

There is a serious misperception among non-writers that the writing process can be turned on and off at a moment’s notice and that it can be interrupted by conversation with zero negative impacts. Occasionally we get a coworker or cubicle neighbor who thinks this way and doesn’t understand the writer’s need for uninterrupted quiet (or music-filled, talk-free) time to stay focused and do the job right. What is the introverted technical writer to do? There are actions you can take to address the situation before you blow your top. Here are a few suggestions.

Step 1: Address the Situation Like an Adult

If someone is talking when you (or s/he) are supposed to be working, you shouldn’t have to suffer in silence. Nor should you vent helplessly to other coworkers about the issue in your immediate vicinity.

Being the polite but direct sort, my first remedy is a simple request: “Hey, I’d like to chat, but I’m working on something right now, and I really need  to not talk and avoid distractions so I can concentrate. Could we talk when I’m done?” This should be the most effective route because you’re not trying to silence them permanently (more on that later), just right now. You’ve asked your coworker to defer conversation until you’re at a point where talking won’t distract you. Also, you’ve explained why you requested the quiet. Maybe to punctuate the request more fully, put on some earphones/ear buds, so they get the hint that you will not be listening to them.

Step 2: Being a Little Less Friendly About It

Okay, so maybe friendly didn’t work. Your coworker lacks an off switch. At this point, they are being rude and unprofessional. It might be time to ramp up your exasperation a notch so they understand that their behavior is not acceptable. If your coworker didn’t respect the polite request or the ear buds, you might try posting a “Do Not Disturb” notice. Or repeat your request for quiet in a slightly less friendly tone of voice than you used previously. Remind him/her that you already asked politely and need to get your work done.

Actually, for most of my 30s, my cubicle featured a “Heckometer,” which was a Homeland Security Advisory notice I modified to meet my needs. I explained that if I was in the red level of heck (a nice Midwestern word for hell), that meant that I was stressed out and the only reason someone should interrupt me was if it was an emergency. At the orange level, I’d answer a quick work-related question, if necessary. At yellow and below, I could pause what I was doing and engage in conversation. Word got around, and my coworkers learned to respect the Heckometer.


I finally retired the Heckometer when I moved to a company with less stress and less talking, but that’s a story for another day.

Step 3: Relocate

If there’s another place in the office where you can work undisturbed and the aforementioned polite/semi-polite notices haven’t worked, perhaps it’s worth the effort to pack up and go.

Step 4: Request Intervention from Management

I don’t like doing this. I don’t recall even doing it, but if your tormentor/talker not only ignores your requests and follows you to your hiding place to continue their one-way conversation, you might need to break down and ask a manager to intervene. You might request in the presence of a manager that your coworker please respect your need for quiet so you can work. Again, the point is not to punish anyone, just get your work environment to a state where you can be productive. Explain to your leader what you’re working on. List the attempts you made to address the situation, politely, jokingly, or otherwise. Start a discussion about workplace norms.

If you have the conversation with a manager present, the manager asks the other person to go easy on the talking, and the problem still persists, request a permanent relocation for you or the other person…maybe you, so it feels less like a punishment for them. This is important because you have to work with this person still and the goal is not to do permanent damage to the working relationship, just get your boundaries respected.

Bottom line: you should be able to work in an environment that allows you to concentrate and do your job. There comes a point where friendliness can become rudeness, and others should respect that difference. Technical writing is a responsible profession with its own unique needs. And technical writers are people, too.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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