update: my new coworker wants to forbid music in the office

Remember the letter-writer whose new coworker wanted people to stop playing music in the office? Here’s the update.

As I expected, we did end up having that new worker stay on as a permanent hire. After reading everyone’s thoughtful responses on Ask a Manager, I decided to err on the considerate side and refrain from playing any music on my work computer. It stayed that way for a while, the days dragging on as my office remained quiet and lifeless as a tomb.

But about a month ago, I felt comfortable enough to revisit the issue with my coworker. She said she wouldn’t mind music playing in the office if it came from her own computer — apparently straining to hear the quiet music from my desk was the cause of her irritation. So now we listen to music again in the office, taking turns with each of our Pandora stations.

I guess it should be no surprise that workplace relationships are a lot like personal ones: communication is key. It’s nice to see what a simple conversation can accomplish if you’re willing to have one. Now there’s music in the air again and the days don’t drag quite so much.

{ 24 comments… read them below }

  1. Gene

    So just why the F4 didn’t she say that in the first place? Her initial complaints only caused you to lower the volume, which made her irritation to be worse!

    Is clear communication REALLY that difficult? Apparently it is, if one goes by the letters AAM gets.

    1. Jessica (the celt)

      I don’t think it’s necessarily difficult, but not everyone is reasonable about things. Some people just want things their way no matter what, and no discussion is going to bring about change or compromise. Perhaps the coworker didn’t realize why the music bothered her so much until later (or maybe she thought it wouldn’t matter what the reason was, because people would assume she just wanted control if she suggested hosting the music on her own computer all of the time).

      I’ve worked in a lot of places, and clear communication has been achieved with very few coworkers and only one supervisor. All of the others were filled with either passive aggressive supervisors/coworkers or supervisors/coworkers who pretended to listen or to be concerned about the problem only to just hide in their offices or cubicles or to continue the annoying behaviors when push came to shove. People want to complain, but very few do anything to help solve the problems (and talking to each other is probably one of the easiest ways to start that process).

      1. Gene

        Given what her reason for the annoyance was, she could have said, “Could you turn that up a bit so I can hear it better?” Then everyone would have been happy.

    2. fposte

      I say let’s applaud the fact that she got there rather than exclaim that she didn’t start there. It’s a lesson many of us have to learn for ourselves, and usually it takes a few times to sink in, too.

    3. Relosa

      To be fair, I have similar hearing/sensitivity issues like the coworker who doesn’t want any music. Having to explain to people 1935891 times that they have to face me when they’re talking TO me, to please slow down on the phone, or that sounds have to be a little bit more than moderate (not because of hearing loss but the opposite – I have sensitive hearing so having the sound on line like that would make me constantly focus on it, like someone deliberately whispering to get attention – I can more easily drown out a radio next to me). Doesn’t mean it’s reasonable but it happens.

    4. Mephyle

      Why didn’t she just say so in the first place? I can imagine it happening this way: she was annoyed by the music, so she spoke to LW. After it was turned down, she realized she was still annoyed and it took her a while to put her finger on the reason why.

      Having once spoken to LW about it, she was reluctant to bother her again and risk further conflict, especially since it seemed to go against what she had said in the first place (“Turn down your music, please.” “No, wait, actually turn it louder please.”(

  2. Jessica (the celt)

    This is a great update! AAM always says the same thing about communication, and I think it’s true that reasonable people can usually (not always, of course) come to some kind of compromise if they talk things through.

    1. Mike

      Seriously. My noise cancelling headphones have been one of my best investments. Never had a problem with people getting my attention. A quick hand wave in my line of sight or a quick chat message saying they need to talk.

    2. BRR

      In the original letter the OP says their manager prefers they don’t wear headphones. I thought the same thing at first.

      1. hayling

        I’m so glad we can wear headphones at my job! I understand why some companies don’t want that though, especially for more customer-facing roles.

        I did however just get noise-canceling headphones (yesterday!) and they are great. I’m WFH today and my SO is puttering around the house and it really helps me tune him out.

        1. De Minimis

          I think at my work it would probably be considered a safety issue. We need to be able to hear the overhead intercom in case of emergencies, which aren’t that uncommon.

          1. Pennalynn Lott

            I wear a single bluetooth earpiece every day. If I want to listen to music, I just stream it from my laptop or my phone to the bluetooth. That way I can still hear what’s going on around me.

  3. Lana

    I’m glad to see there was a good resolution on this! I can sympathise with the co-worker — I have an auditory processing disorder that, among other things, means my brain doesn’t really have a “background noise” setting. Everything is right up front and my brain is only rarely/under specific circumstances able to tune it out, and for some reason (no idea why!) the quiet stuff can be a lot worse than the loud stuff. I work from home now but when I was in the office, I was just one person in a big group of people who wanted to chat all day without worrying too much about noise levels. So it’s pretty fantastic that you were so understanding and able to come up with a solution that sounds like it’s working for everybody.

  4. Pete

    That original post generated what is probably my favorite set of responses. Oddly disappointed in the reasonable outcome.

  5. Mina

    Personally, I despise noises in the office like music, gum smacking – don’t even get me started on the constant popping sounds – and whistling. I ‘m hypersensitive to my environment, get headaches very easily. One of the higher ups here whistles constantly, precisely because he knows it annoys me.

    1. Ludo

      There is only one sound that makes me crazy in the office.

      My direct report (who sits next to me) slurping and gulping his morning coffee. I swear it makes me want to rip my ears off my own head. I’ve thought of saying something but there is no way I can say “if you don’t start drinking your coffee in a quieter/less grotesque manner I am going to snap and commit homicide” without sounding more than a little unhinged. So instead, I plan my daily trip to the kitchen around his arrival/coffee drinking escapades. I don’t have to hear it and all is better.

      1. Relosa

        I have a hideous but amazingly useful coffee tumbler that eliminated my slurping – didn’t want the burnt lips!

        It’s ugly as sin but I’d never get rid of my Bubba Keg tumbler!

    2. SuzyQ

      The guy in the office next to me clips his nails on a regular basis. Not just a quick trim, a full on grooming. Weekly! I finally got up the nerve to ask him to shut his door. He said, “oh, you can hear that?” Grrr, like nails on a chalkboard for me.

  6. jordanjay29

    I can empathize pretty well with the new hire. I have a hearing loss, and while I probably wouldn’t be able to hear the music playing on the lowest level, there gets to be a point where music is loud enough for me to hear but too quiet to make out. My brain (and I’m sure the new hire’s in the letter) spends too much of its processing time trying to make sense of the music and it distracts me from what I’m trying to do.

    This is true, too, for open floor plan offices where conversation carries only so far. When someone starts up a conversation just beyond where I can comfortably hear it, my brain gets stuck trying to make out what’s being said. It’s irritating on its face, and even more so when the conversation has nothing to do with me. Unfortunately, I’ve spent so much of my life straining to hear everything (because in your younger years, most everything said in your vicinity is important to you) that I can no longer turn it off now that there’s so much irrelevant conversation.

    For those of us who have no control over this, it’s extremely irritating and actually hampers concentration and work. I do sympathize with the OP, everyone should be able to work in an environment that is comfortable to them, and for some that means background music, noise or conversation. There are too many “established cultures” that one may enter where someone like me or the new hire may not feel comfortable or get too much resistance to change when we request something like this. I can understand why the new hire was initially resistant to being flexible, because on the other side, the options available to someone like the new hire (or me) are: put up with it or wear headphones. If you can understand the many established cultures of background music/noise/conversation that have no interest in accommodating someone different, I’m sure you can understand the new hire’s stubbornness.

    If we could all just sit down and have an objective discussion about requests like this, I have a feeling there’d be a lot less intra-office conflict.

    1. LoFlo

      JordanJay I feel your pain. I have the same situation with loud ringing in one ear. It is very difficult for people to take this situation seriously, especially in open office floor plans where the constant chattering = collaboration :( They can’t understand that you brain goes into cognative overload trying to process all of the various sounds. I have asked for people to use IM and was told unless everybody is speaking then there is no “transparency”.

  7. Sandrine (France)

    My own problem would actually have been much more petty, but I have no shame admitting it here since I wouldn’t make a fuss about it at work.

    Sadly, even if there are exceptions, I just can’t listen to certain types of music. Sometimes I’ll play the tolerant person and listen to certain stuff anyway (like with my fiancé, since I can’t just blast Kpop at home all the time with no exceptions, that wouldn’t be fair!) , but most of the time, I’m just going “arrrrrrrrrrrgh” internally so much it’s really pathetic.

    So I’m all team headphones, this way I can blast my own ears with my kpop and my silly music, I don’t bother anymore, win win for everyone involved.

    I am happy the OP is satisfied with the resolution, but I have to admit I wouldn’t like it, especially because I like my music to come from my own computer too.

  8. Vicki

    “I guess it should be no surprise that workplace relationships are a lot like personal ones: communication is key. It’s nice to see what a simple conversation can accomplish if you’re willing to have one. ”

    Time to make this a pull quote on the front page of this site!

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