A reader writes:
I’ve recently graduated from a professional-graduate level program. I’m in my 30s, but I’m just starting out on my professional career path. For the first time, I’m looking for a job where I will stay for more than a year or two, and hopefully will be able to advance either within the company or within the profession.
I don’t really like making small talk, and I’m usually a quiet person both in and out of work. Despite my quietness, I am a very open person and when I do get talking I tend to reveal too much about myself. In prior work experiences, I’ve learned the hard way that some people will take such information and use it against you if given the opportunity. I’m also in a same sex relationship, which makes it harder to make small talk about my personal life, because I never know how coworkers will react to such information. For all these reasons, I don’t talk much at work.
Currently I’m working in a job where several of my coworkers and I sit in an open area with nothing to shield our desks from one another. I find that my coworkers will get into several conversations a day, sometimes lasting up to an hour at a time, about nothing at all work related. Given that our assigned tasks are complex, there is no way my coworkers are working and talking at the same time — they are just talking. On some days, I would guess they spend close to 3 hours of paid “work time” conversing. But talking isn’t just a problem here. Just prior to this job, I was completing an internship at a professional agency. Even though that work space had tall cubicles around each desk, my coworkers would talk, talk, talk all day. Given the cube walls, they would just yell at one another while sitting at their desks. They would talk about the most mindless stuff, like whether there were lots of cars in the parking lot, their dogs, and snow plows coming down the street (we live in a place that snows a lot, so seeing a snow plow can’t be an extraordinary event worth mentioning for anyone.)
I have a really hard time focusing when there are people talking and all this talking, especially when it seems pointless to me, really gets on my nerves. I often feel a little annoyed at my coworkers, and about the fact our supervisors must notice all the talking, realize productivity is being lost, and yet do nothing. My girlfriend is also quiet like me, and also a very private person, so she also doesn’t talk a lot at work and has similar complaints about her coworkers. This weekend we had a discussion about whether talking at work helps or hurts people. She says that people who socialize, no matter how little work they do, get ahead regardless because they talk to everyone and network. I hate to believe this is the truth, and would like to think hard work gets you ahead, but I have my doubts. What are your thoughts? Also, do you have any suggestions for dealing with coworkers that talk all day and distract you from work? I feel like it’s not “my place” to ask them to be quiet (because my supervisor should do that, not me).
You have hit on one of the banes of my existence.
People who regularly spend significant chunks of work time socializing (or doing any other non-work-related activity) are people who are unquestionably less productive than those who don’t. It’s a disservice to themselves and their employers, and it betrays a completely different work ethic and relationship to work than what great employees want in coworkers. And managers who either don’t notice or don’t care about it either have that same low work ethic themselves or are simply not competent at managing people.
But none of that helps you, so let’s get more practical. It’s helpful to see this as two separate problems: (1) the talking distracts you from your work, and (2) it’s unfair that some of your coworkers are spending a huge chunk of their day focused on socializing rather than working.
These are separate problems, so let’s discuss them separately.
As for the distraction issue: Since everyone else likes to talk and you’re the one who doesn’t, I agree that it probably won’t be effective to ask them to keep it down. (Please note that this is only because you’re in the minority on this issue. If only a few people were causing the problem, it absolutely would be “your place” to ask them to keep it down. It’s not your place to ask them to focus on their work, but it’s very much your place to tell them that they’re interfering with your ability to do your own. This is the type of thing that most managers expect you’ll try handling on your own first.)
In any case, they’re the majority, so that leaves you without the same options. So … can you try wearing noise-canceling headphones? Can you ask if it’s feasible to move somewhere quieter? That isn’t always possible, but sometimes it is. (And sometimes by asking, you politely call attention to the problem.)
Now, as for the second issue: the fundamental unfairness of the situation. It sounds like you’re working in an environment that doesn’t put a big emphasis on high performance. High-performing organizations have cultures where this kind of thing just doesn’t happen — they hire people with work ethics, people without work ethics don’t last long there, and the whole culture reinforces a focus on work, not chit chat. (That’s not to say that some chit chat isn’t normal; of course it is. But not three hours a day of it.) I’d bet money that this kind of slacking off isn’t the only problem with the management where you’re working — if people are routinely spending that much time not focused on work, there are going to be other problems too, like managers not holding people accountable to ambitious goals, not having tough conversations, not firing people who need to be fired, etc. So the problem goes well beyond the unfairness of the slacking-off: You’re working somewhere mediocre, and unfocused coworkers come with the territory.
That’s something that you can only change by changing jobs and making a point of seeking out somewhere with a culture of high performance.
And as for your girlfriend’s assertion that “people who socialize, no matter how little work they do, get ahead regardless because they talk to everyone and network” — that is absolutely not true in most industries, not at the places you want to work. If that’s true in a particular workplace, it’s a flashing red light that it’s one you don’t want to work in.
Some socializing and networking is generally helpful, because having professional relationships is helpful. But if you don’t have accomplishments to go with it, high performers (who are the ones you want to be associated with) are going to fairly quickly see you as a time-waster and blusterer.