my coworker sings loudly while I’m trying to work

A reader writes:

I work in an open space office. There are about 15 of us working in a large room. The woman next to me has the tendency to sing along to her music loudly, usually in short bursts for a few seconds. This happens several times a day, and I find it really distracting. However, I don’t feel like it’s my place to ask her to stop. Is it acceptable for me to take the initiative and politely mention this, or should I talk to my boss first? I don’t have the option of sitting elsewhere, and while I occasionally wear noise-canceling headphones, it feels very stifling to wear them all day long (though that does seem like my best option at this point).

Ask her to stop. You say you don’t feel like it’s your place to ask her to stop, but she’s the one disrupting a group of other people, not you. It’s completely reasonable to explain that it’s distracting and ask her to stop.

It’s way, way better to ask her to stop than to just go straight to your boss, whose first question is likely to be, “Have you asked her to stop?”

The next time she does it, tell her that you’re sure she doesn’t realize that it’s distracting but it makes it hard for you to focus, and ask if she could stop. Singing loudly in an office is what’s unreasonable (and unprofessional), not politely requesting that someone curtail it.

{ 165 comments… read them below }

  1. Craig*

    I had a co-worker that sat in the cube opposite to mine and she had a tendancy to hum loudly to every song on the radio. It drove me nuts but I didn’t say anything because no one else seemed to have a problem with it and she was the most senior person there.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If you were her, wouldn’t you have wanted to know that you were annoying the crap out of someone? (And by doing something that lots of people would be annoyed by; it’s not like you had some bizarre reaction to it.)

      1. Jane*

        I actually mentioned that people in our surrounding area were bothered by her singing/humming, “her response-they can f*ng get over it”. Most people are aware and are just inconsiderate.

    2. JT*

      Craig – It’s quite possible that it drove other people nuts too but they all assumed, as you did, that it didn’t bother anyone else so didn’t say anything either.

  2. Andy Lester*

    Just ask her to stop singing. “Hey, Susan, could you please not sing? It makes it hard to work.” That’s all you have to do.

    Make sure you don’t specify volume, like “could you please not sing so loud?” because she’ll sing slightly more quietly and that’s no better.

    If that doesn’t work, THEN go to your boss. There is no reason for her to be doing this.

    1. Vicki*

      My bet? She doesn’t realize she’s singing along. She’ll be embarrassed and will try very hard to stop.
      You may need to remind her.

  3. Ivy*

    Agreed! You don’t have to be aggressive about it… just assertive! Aggression will probably lead to returned aggression; assertiveness will lead to a quiet office :)
    Aggressive: “Hey! Can you stop your out of tune singing! I can’t hear myself think while your belting it out!”
    Assertive: “Sorry to bother you Teresa (or whatever), but while I love hearing your beautiful voice, I actually find it really hard to concentrate when you sing so loudly.”

    1. Ivy*

      Oo after reading Andy’s comment I agree about the “not specifying volume.” So take out the “so loudly” at the end.

    2. Ivy*

      Also! I wouldn’t go to the boss right away. She may have developed a habit that will take a few reminders to correct. I doubt she’ll have a problem with not singing (who wants to annoy the people around them), but she might honestly forget. It make take a few “Teresa your singing again…”s before she stops completely.

      It’s all about tone in how you say things! Be careful not to come of condescending especially since she’s at the same level as you.

    3. Sophie*

      I understand that by saying “I love your voice,” it may soften the request, but I think it’s unnecessary and probably untrue. It may come across as patronizing. Keep it short and sweet – “Sorry to bother you, but would you please not sing out loud? I’m having a hard time concentrating.”

      1. fposte*

        Yes, this is one of those things that becomes a bigger deal the longer you take to explain it.

        1. Ivy*

          I also don’t think adding 5 words is going to make the explanation unbearably long to the point of making it a bigger deal than it is…

          It’s going to make the other person less embarrassed which goes a long way with coworkers.

          1. fposte*

            To me, the embarrassment quotient rises with the length, because it loses the casualness that keeps it from being a Big Deal. If a colleague accidentally grabs my notes after a meeting, it’s more awkward to say “Bob, I know you didn’t mean to, because you’re a good worker, but I think you have my notes,” despite the fact that it’s technically involving more kind phrasing, than just “Oops, Bob, those are mine. Thanks!”

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              That’s an excellent illustration of this!

              Overall, I think that anything that gives someone permission to say something (i.e., anything that lets them feel comfortable enough to speak up when they otherwise wouldn’t) is a good thing, but I agree that shorter is better/less awkward.

      2. Ivy*

        Again I think it’s all about the way you say it. I think saying the voice thing is a funner way to do it. If you say it in a light hearted way where your joking with her it will definitely soften the blow, and unless this woman is on some high horse, will not come off as patronizing. I’m trying to garner it more to OP. It seems like OP doesn’t really want to confront her about this (hence wanting to go to the boss right away). Throwing in a little humility will make it easier for OP to confront her coworker. Being straight up with someone works for certain people and not for others. Sugar coating isn’t always the best way to communicate something, but I think its better to say something even sugar coated rather than saying nothing at all. It’s not necessary other than making OP more willing to communicate and feeling less awkward in doing so.

        1. fposte*

          I do see where you’re going with this, and you’re right about the OP sounding uneasy. The point I’m making is that sugarcoating something can make it seem like it was a bigger deal than it was, because it apparently needed sugarcoating, which means, paradoxically, that the attempt to be kind has actually made a request more upsetting to the listener.

          To be honest, I think either way will do you in most situations, but especially if you’re the bug-ee and you’re nervous because you feel like you need to make a speech about the thing, it can be useful to realize that simply saying something briefly can be okay–or even better.

        2. Vicki*

          Ivy –
          please understand that some of us don’t like “light hearted joking”. We _will_ take “I love your voice” the wrong way.

          If she doesn’t realize she’s singing out loud, if she’s embarrassed to learn she is singing out loud, she is very likely NOT going to respond well to “I love your voice”. She’ll only be more embarrassed.

          Please, just ask her “do you realize you’re singling out loud? Please stop.” Don’t sugar coat. And do not lie.

          1. Ivy*

            Yes I suppose that’s true… I guess I just don’t see how someone wouldn’t notice the fact that they are loudly singing in a quiet office. It is possible though….

            1. Jamie*

              I assumed she was listening via headphones – in which case I guess it’s possible…although I would still think you’d know when you engaged your vocal chords.

      3. Anonymous*

        I always get annoyed when people compliment me on something and then ask me to stop doing it. I know the compliment is meaningless. Just as me to stop doing whatever it is.

        1. Ivy*

          It’s not really compliment because she’s not saying “you’re good at singing.” It’s more whimsical because she’s saying “I like to hear your voice.” That can mean talking. It’s not a genuine compliment so much as a joking introduction to the rest. In a way its sarcastic….

          Anyhoo… It’s hard to communicate tone over messages, and we all have some stylistic differences. As fposte said, there are many ways to tell her and really all the suggestions here work. It’s all a matter of choice after that.

    4. Long Time Admin*

      “Your beautiful voice”? Really?

      Skip that whole phrase and just tell the person that her singing is distracting you.

  4. Charles*

    It is also possible that the OP isn’t the only one bothered by this; perhaps, others are too, only everyone is afraid to say something.

    So, yea, I’d tell her (politely, of course!) that it is disruptive; then go to the boss if it doesn’t stop (the boss may not even be aware of it; especially if her office isn’t near by)

  5. Yuu*

    If it’s small bursts, it could be that your co-worker doesn’t even realize she’s doing it. If its habit it could be hard to break, but I doubt the person would take offense if you mentioned it in the way Andy Lester said. Keep it casual and don’t sound angry – little things are best mentioned before they get bottled up and become big things!

    In an aside, this totally reminds me of a radio comedy bit I once heard on a podcast about “Nose Humming” in the office. So this is definitely a universal pet peeve!

  6. Jamie*

    The singers and whistlers are the scourge of offices everywhere.

    Tell her – if you can be nice about it, great. If not, tell her anyway before you start fantasizing about driving into a pole on the way to work so to put yourself out of your misery.

    I think she should have been fired already for this, but then again this is a huge pet peeve of mine and I’m not sure I’m be opposed to capital punishment for this offense…so I’m not exactly unbiased.

    Who does this?!

      1. Jamie*

        Admittedly I’m completely irrational on this topic.

        I worked next to a consistent singing, whistling, desk drumming, finger tapping, cereal bowl spoon scraping, humming, self chatting co-worker for long enough that I seriously considered quitting a pretty great job because I just couldn’t stand it.

        I tried the noise canceling headphones which caused the co-worker to amp up the noise because being ignored was “thwarting creativity” so when I was on the phone (and defenseless) he would become so loud people from other offices would come in to ask him to calm down.

        Even from people I like, I hate any and all sounds of food and eating, some of which are unavoidable as I’ve yet to find an office where the employees subsist solely on silent foods like marshmallows and peeps. But when people are noisy on purpose – it’s like chewing tin foil to me – just completely unnerving to me.

        1. Ariancita*

          I hate the sound of any food eating as well. It just really grosses me out and even the smallest sounds are amplified in a small quiet office. It’s like I’m right there in the person’s mouth with the food. Yuck!

        2. AMG*

          Doing it on purpose is just asinine. I used to work with people like that–they can’t stand not to have attention even if the audience is trying to get work done.

          And yes, even if unintentional, it really is that annoying. It’s a reasonable request to wait until you are in the car or in the shower to let loose your inner Adele or Snow White Dwarf.

          What is it about common courtesy that people find so elusive? I should have the right to be distracting and irritating whenever I want, and if you don’t like it, it’s your problem–really?

        3. Esra*

          The guy who sits beside me could make eating marshmallows and peeps disruptive and nauseating. His lunch hour = my time on noise cancelling headphones with the volume up.

          1. Jamie*

            Can’t be – because if you were my sister you would have the same problem. We all do :).

          1. Jamie*

            Ha! And these are the kinds of thoughts which are avoided by people being quiet. Because even the most non-violent among us has had it cross our minds. :)

        4. moe*

          Oh definitely, if it’s a constant thing, that’s one thing.

          But I think it’s incumbent on the annoy-ee to consider whether his response is proportionate, before (s)he asks the annoy-er to change some behavior. And I’m considering the OP’s facts that it’s open-space (so presumably, an office that encourages some level of noise/interaction), music is allowed, and the singing happens only a few seconds a few times a day.

          Annoyance happens and it’s not always reasonable to expect others to adjust to our own preferences. Again, if this were a constant thing–instead of just a total of less than a minute a day of singing? Different story.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Singing in the workplace in an open area really isn’t professional though, and as others have pointed out, if you’re doing work that requires concentration, it can really pull you out of that.

            1. fposte*

              As with the legendary nail-clipping, it’s also something that you don’t know when to expect, so it’s not like it’s a minute first thing in the morning and then it’s not a problem. It just lies there in wait for you all day, making you jumpy.

          2. The Other Dawn*

            I think it’s totally reasonable to expect that people won’t burst into song, talk to themselves incessantly, drum their fingers, etc. in the workplace. They can do anything they want once they leave work, but they should have a little self-control in the workplace, especially when not everyone has an office and can close the door.

        5. Anonymous*

          UGH, I have major issues with chewing noises too and I sit next to this person too! We have a very quiet office and he makes bodily noises all day long (groans, snorts, coughs, sighs, scratches, slurps, etc) and chews with his mouth open incredibly loudly. He can’t even drink coffee quietly – SLUUUUURP, SMACK, AHHH over and over. I try to leave when he eats lunch to run errands or I have to turn up my headphones way up (and avoid looking at him so I don’t get an eyeful of his half chewed sandwich).

          I know part if it is my sound issue, but he also listens in on my phone calls and comments on them after I’ve hung up, asks me about personal appointments on my calendar all the time, flosses and picks his teeth at his desk, uses nasal spray constantly and takes off his shoes and scratches his feet at his desk and is generally an irritant. I think he just doesn’t know how to behave in an office setting as he worked from home for over 10 years. I’m not sure what to do about it – it’s not a simple thing to address like singing– the way he exists in the world drives me crazy.

          Sorry for the rant but I feel you!

          1. Really?*

            I can’t stand it when my husband is eating near me at home and making those noises… at work I’d go insane!

            I might also be prepared to admit I force my husband to remove as many rustling packets ASAP and put things into tupperware to avoid that sort of noise too!

        6. Long Time Admin*

          Peeps. Mmmmmm!

          I *would* subsist soley on marshmallows and peeps if I could.

          1. Jamie*

            If Alison ever opens the Chocolate Teapot Factory and hires us I vote that you plan menus for all team lunches – I also could happily live on peeps – with the occasional regular marshmallow for the vitamins. :)

            1. khilde*

              Do you guys do frozen peeps? I love how they are crunchy at first and then slowly sink into a chewy texture. Chewy is my love language, man.

        7. Long Time Admin*

          As for the guy who was insulted that you were thwarting his creativity, I would have been tempted to throw things at him, starting with pencils and highlighters, and escalating to staplers and tape dispensers. You can do that with one hand while you’re talking to your caller. (Multi-tasking!)

          I’ve worked with all these kinds of people, too. In fact, very early in my career, I was one – I talked to myself quite a bit during the work day. One day, I mentioned to someone that I tend to talk to myself while working, and she said “I know”. That was enough for me, and I made a point to stop doing it.

          1. Jamie*

            I’m not really a thrower…I’m more a go out for lunch and write a spectacular diatribe of a resignation letter to get it out of my system and then come back to work.

            Oddly enough, though, that co-worker did throw beach balls at me, on a couple of occasions. Apparently I am uptight and too serious – and needed to lighten up. It was felt that the best way to accomplish that end was by throwing large beach balls at me and knocking stuff off my desk while I am working.

            My response was the opposite of “lightening up.”

    1. The Other Dawn*

      “The singers and whistlers are the scourge of offices everywhere.”

      I totally agree. Hearing someone whistle makes me what to stab myself in the eye.

      1. Julia*

        For me, it’s people with weird laughs – the maniacal cacklers, the “hyuck hyuckers” , the gigglers and the squealers. Shoot them all!

        1. Cassie*

          Whistlers and weird laughers – yes! There’s one lady who will sometimes whistle when she walks by – not all the time, but maybe once a day. I want to tell her “you know it’s bad luck to whistle in the theater?”. We’re not in the theater, but it could still apply!

          And we have a gaggle of weird laughers who are also loud laughers – oof. Some of them even know they have really weird loud laughs and they still do it.

    2. Ummm... no*

      I whistle sometimes – short bursts usually – and usually don’t even realize it. I have my own private office but still, yet, I’ll be walking into the Business Office and whistle away at the copier – in my own world. If someone considers driving into a pole because of this… a little whistling? Then perhaps they need conseling… just a thought. I can see how singing might be a bit annoying but the OP said short bursts – “short” is relative … is this 4 seconds or 4 minutes? It matters. She’s obviously happy and the rest of you sound like bitter old nags!

      But again, it is all relative… 4 seconds x 4 times a day? 4 minutes x 4 times an hour? It matters. Has she always been doing this or it is something new? It matters.

      Just be thankful she’s not hacking away from COPD or something. :)

      1. AMG*

        She’s happy because she’s not the one being driven crazy by annoying and unnecessary noise. And who wouldn’t be frustrated at someone disrespecting professional boundaries?

        At least if it’s a medical condition she could go to the doctor.

      2. fposte*

        Sure, but it’s one thing to do it when you don’t realize it annoys anybody. Would you really insist on your right to do it simply because you believe people aren’t allowed to be annoyed by it?

  7. The IT Manager*

    What AAM said, but …

    The woman next to me has the tendency to sing along to her music loudly, usually in short bursts for a few seconds. This happens several times a day

    Does anyone think she may be already trying to break the habit? She stops after a few seconds. It’s not like its long or constant, but yes, I understand that its really, really annoying so follow AAM’s advice.

  8. moe*

    If it’s just short bursts for a few seconds, several times a day, we’re talking about what, 15 seconds a day of annoyance? I don’t see the point in bringing this up, unless you want her and others to start scrutinizing your seconds-long annoying habits as well.

    In an open-space office that allows people to play music, I’d suspect you’d be badly misreading the culture to start griping about 15 seconds of annoyance a day. I can’t imagine how this is *that* distracting–and if it is, you’re probably working at the wrong place.

    1. Indie_Rachael*

      Your definition of “a few seconds” may vary from OP. My own assumption is that it would be at least one line from a song, maybe a refrain, but certainly less than an entire verse.

      At any rate, OP describes the outbursts as loud, and any loud noise — especially if it can be controlled and/or occurs at random times — is sufficient to annoy someone enough to request that the person who controls the noise stop it.

    2. Jamie*

      It isn’t about a couple of seconds of annoyance – it’s really disrespectful to the people who are trying to concentrate.

      At work the right of an employee to focus on work trumps another employee’s right to let loose their inner Celine Dion every single time.

      1. Anonymous*

        I think it’s fair to point out that there are people who talk to themselves, sing, hum, listen to music or tap their feet while they are concentrating. It depends on the office culture as to how acceptable the behavior is, as to what makes for the most efficient office. Some are quiet, and others are not.

        1. Jamie*

          I know that some people do that, and I actually agree with you that it depends on the office culture as to whether this is accepted or not.

          I just think this is an issue of common courtesy. Some people like to wear a lot of perfume – but this bothers other people. Some people miss being able to smoke in restaurants but understand that the bans are fair, because it bothers people.

          The less obtrusive behavior should have the right of way, so to speak. The right to be stink up the place with too strong perfume or by smoking is trumped by the rights of others who would hate that. The right to make make extraneous noises at work falls into the same category.

          This is why culture and fit are so critically important. Of course it would be wrong of me to accept a job where the culture was noisy and gregarious and try to inhibit everyone. By the same token, if the office is quiet and there is one or two people making noise to amuse themselves then “the rights of the many outweigh the rights of the few. Or the one.”

      2. moe*

        But the others may well be fine with the noise.

        I would be curious to know for sure what kind of office culture we’re talking about here, though. In some roles (like, say, data entry) music/talking helps most people get through the day, and a request from a peer to keep it down would be seen as supremely weird.

        But it was a short post and I’m speculating, too…

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Right, but someone not being able to work with the noise trumps others being okay with the noise, unless it’s an office where the vast majority of people are noisy like this, including managers.

                1. fposte*

                  Because the employer’s right to determine the workplace standards outranks both. So if you like it quiet but your employer says that it’s okay for people to play music without headphones, it’s up to you to negotiate with your employer for a quieter space or learn to deal.

                  Individual tastes<Workplace culture<Boss's wishes

        2. Jamie*

          I was just thinking about the point of it being only a couple of seconds…it’s not just the duration but how annoying you find the sounds themselves.

          I would personally rather hear one of those air horns things go off (is that the word for them? Those things like bear repellent that are like an aerosol can and make a horrifically loud noise?) than to hear someone sing, whistle, or crinkle a potato chip bag.

          But I’m guessing if I took to sounding one of those things off for a second or two a couple of times a day – just because I was feeling particularly happy – my co-workers would be writing into AAM in droves begging for advice to get me to stop. Even if it only added up to 8 seconds a day, I’m pretty sure the ones not writing in to get me to stop would be googling a way to cut my brakes without traceability.

          I so wish I could test this theory – just to see the looks on the faces of the people in my office if I became air-horn girl.

          1. Charles*

            ” . . . googling a way to cut . . . brakes without traceability.”

            Hmmm, never piss off the IT folks!

        3. Anonymous*

          I do a lot of data entry work in my job and we all listen to music on our headphones.

    3. fposte*

      Eh, I think if it drives you crazy it’s legit to request. Generally with a habit you won’t be completely successful, but then you’ll at least know she’s trying.

    4. Vicki*

      You are assuming “an open-space office that allows people to play music” whereas I read “her music” to mean an office space that allows people to play music _thorough headphones_.

      There’s a big difference there. The latter (what I think a lot of us thought OP meant) is a case of general quiet interrupted by a capella singing. It’s a common thing for many people who play music over headphones or ear buds/

  9. Marie*

    It doesn’t see like a lot of signing, but if it bothers you, talk to her. The social norm is NOT to sing in the office.

    I hapen to share my office with a signer.. he does it all day long… some how it doesn’t bother me. I would have told him if it did. To his credit, he sometimes askes me if he should stop and let me work in peace.

    1. Charles*

      “signer”? Yea, those deaf signers are really annoying! Their fingers are flailing about all day long!

      Only kidding, “signing” instead of singing is a typo like I would make! (MS Word has made me so lazy with my typing, always fising my mistakes, I’m kind of lost without it when typing comments here)

      1. Jamie*

        I know – I hate when my mistakes get ‘fised’ like that!

        Sorry – cracked me up because in the course of this thread I’ve lost count of how many times I had to change sign to sing in my own posts. It’s one of the most insidious little typos.

        1. A Bug!*

          I have the opposite problem! I have to proof-read carefully to make sure I’m not asking a client to please sing something and then get back to me.

          Then again, I guess that’s one way to take the dryness out of a legal document.

  10. MaryTerry*

    I promise to stop singing fragments of songs when you say a phrase that triggers a song: I had no idea it annoyed so many people – at my last place of employment, everyone did it. Mea culpa.

    However, I haven’t figured out how to stop the daily sneezing fits when the fan for the HVAC system starts up – Does anyone have suggestions?

    1. Sophie*

      Keep your nasal passages moist with saline spray, lots of hot tea and a weekly irrigation flush. I have the same problem, I get sneezing fits and headaches because they keep it so damn cold sometimes.

      1. Andrea*

        It’s 90 degrees outside, and I’m shivering in my cube, with a cup of hot cocoa to keep my hands warm, ’cause it is 67 degrees in here.

    2. Long Time Admin*

      That’s a cleanliness problem. Get the ducts cleaned, and install new filters. And if there’s dust on the office furniture, that will cause sneezing when the fans come on.

      1. Jamie*

        This. I almost never sneeze, except when we switch between heating and AC at the change of seasons – then I do for a couple of days.

        As an aside, my son’s mold allergy was diagnosed when he was young and he was perfectly healthy at home but when he got to school he would have horrible sinus problems. I had to pick him up repeatedly for being sick, but by the time I got him home or to the doctor the symptoms would be gone. It turns out a couple of weeks later everyone (even those without allergies) were getting sick and they found mold in the ventilation.

        So if several people have symptoms only at work it’s worth asking the maintenance department to check out the ventilation system.

        1. Indie_Rachael*

          What?? You mean it might be just the mold and not the entire office environment (coworkers, location, etc) that I’m allergic to? Man…


          1. Jamie*

            Oh, that was just anecdotal…I’m not one to diagnose anyone over the internet.

            And I have definitely been severely allergic to a couple of co-workers and one boss over the years…so I’m not saying it can’t happen!

          2. Charles*

            yep, you most certainly can be allergic to people; I had one boss who everytime I saw him I would get sick to my stomach and want to throw up on his shoes.

            1. Jamie*

              Exposure to mine resulted in stomach upset as well…not to mention the hives. He was also a migraine trigger.

              Boss allergies are the worst.

              I think it would have been awesome had you thrown up on his shoes. How can you blame someone for what was clearly just unfortunate aim?

  11. Anonymous*

    We had a coworker like this when I worked at a call center. She’d walk around on her breaks and sing, not the under-your-breath type some people do, but full volume with trilling like Glee. One day I heard a manager stop her down at the end of my row during some odd rendition of “Raining Men” and say “I’ve asked you to stop singing on the sales floor. People are trying to serve customers here.” She tried to tell him that she was singing “to the Lord” (not kidding here) and he can’t stop her from practicing religion. I’ll never forget his response: “I didn’t know Rihanna wrote hymns.”

      1. Kelly O*

        I guess you could argue he could “make it rain up in here” which would require use of an umbrella-ella-ella.

  12. Diane*

    I doubt she’s aware that she’s singing out loud. The woman in the office across from mine talks to herself and sometimes whistles, probably unaware that it’s outside-her-head noise. If it bothered me more (and if I didn’t have a door) I would absolutely tell her, nicely, that I’m sure she’s unaware of her habit, but it’s unnerving when I’m concentrating.

    To those who say a few seconds of loud noise is nothing, maybe you haven’t experienced intense focus broken up by sudden noise, light, or other distraction. But for those who spend their work lives reading, writing, creating, fixing, thinking, or tabulating, it’s critical to have uninterrupted time to work. It takes about 15 minutes to refocus and get back in the zone after an interruption, sometimes more. So is an hour or more of lost productivity worth it in light of someone else’s unleashed creativity, joy, bad habit, or mindless fluff? From a management perspective, no.

    Of course, putting people in cubeland and expecting them to be productive is the greater sin, but we can’t fix that in one post.

    1. Jamie*

      “Of course, putting people in cubeland and expecting them to be productive is the greater sin, but we can’t fix that in one post.”

      This. Your whole comment resonated with me, but the part I quoted is, I believe, the heart of a lot of work place issues.

      Someone here mentioned Susan Cain a while back, and I listened to one of her presentations on the way home a couple of weeks ago. She was quite insightful about how most offices aren’t set up to optimize productivity.

      1. Diane*

        I just heard a podcast about her work too! As a fellow introvert, I get it, and I wish our work culture would reflect the way half the population thinks, learns, and works best.

        I swear office space should be organized by introversion/extroversion, then by temperature preference, then by stupid annoying habits.

    2. Anonymous*

      “To those who say a few seconds of loud noise is nothing, maybe you haven’t experienced intense focus broken up by sudden noise, light, or other distraction. But for those who spend their work lives reading, writing, creating, fixing, thinking, or tabulating, it’s critical to have uninterrupted time to work. It takes about 15 minutes to refocus and get back in the zone after an interruption, sometimes more. So is an hour or more of lost productivity worth it in light of someone else’s unleashed creativity, joy, bad habit, or mindless fluff? From a management perspective, no.”

      I just want to point out that there well may be people who don’t find noise distracting may also be people who spend their work lives “reading, writing, creating, fixing, thinking, or tabulating”. I believe most people do their best to respect everyone’s work environment – personally mine can encompass noise/background activity when I am intensely concentrating. Am I the only one who finds silence to be most distracting? Not quiet, but silence.

      Oddly, I work in an environment where employing those who would be completely distracted by noise would be poor management. I think we do a good job of explaining how it works in our interviews as it has never been a problem. (Not everyone may like it, but that’s the nature of it)

      1. Laura L*

        I don’t like complete silence when I’m working, but I definitely find random, short, loud noises much more distracted.

        What I prefer is a steady stream of background noise that’s the same intensity throughout the day.

        1. Jamie*

          I agree. I have the hum of the factory outside my office walls and I don’t even hear it. However, when I’m working in the building alone I will put on something in the background so I don’t jump at every little noise in the silence.

          I find music distracting, but old sitcoms to be very soothing as background noise – since I know the plots and don’t need to see the visuals. I worked alone all last week and Barney Miller and season 1 of Bewitched kept me grounded.

          For me it isn’t the silence that’s required, that’s actually disconcerting as well, it’s the randomness and arrogance that bothers me.

        2. Anonymous*

          Yes, I work better with steady background noise and music. I think if my office were actually louder, random noises like people chewing would bother me less. But because you can hear a pin drop most of the time, every little weird becomes amplified and distracting!

          1. Student*

            Most people claim that they work better with background noise. Most people don’t actually work better with background noise. Just something to think about.

            Googling “background noise concentrate study” will provide you with a slew of research on this subject, but here’s two examples:



      2. Vicki*

        You’re rare.
        In any case, many studies show that distractions break flow and it can take much more than 15 minutes to reach that level of concentration again.

        1. Natalie*

          I don’t think the Anon is suggesting that they don’t find distractions hard to recover from – they are simply saying they don’t find noise to be a source of distractions.

  13. Catherine*

    I worked at a university where one of the student workers on my floor (not my dept, thankfully) would sing VERY loudly whilst she was working, all day, every day. She was not a good singer. She would also sing in the bathroom. I was really creeped out when I was trying to use the restroom and she came barging in, singing her latest pop number, and took the stall right next to me.

    1. Anonymous*

      I completely misread your comment and thought she was coming into the bathroom and singing her latest “poop” number, making me think that she was coming up with songs about her bowel movements.

  14. Joey*

    The appropriate answer really depends on the culture of the office. If your office is like an old fashioned library where everybody has to lower their voice when they speak do bring it up. If the group is a little more rambunctious and this particular noise is grating on you then you’ll have to suck it up.

  15. Anonymous*

    Is it Marvin Gaye music? If so, I used to work with her. I just counted my blessings that it wasn’t gangsta rap or something.

    1. Charles*

      Ha! I was waiting for someone to blame it on a medical condition! (gee, doc, can you give me some pills; I can’t seem to stop singing!)

        1. Anonymous*

          A few seconds of singing is nothing compared to the five months when my Aspie son was persevering on the Indiana Jones theme, lmao! He hummed/sang/tapped it out nonstop to the point that every adult working with him wanted to rip their hair out. Luckily he eventually outgrew that particular “quirk”, lol. :)

  16. Jessica*

    I have a similar issue in the office i work at. The other admin assistants listen to music that is different in taste than mine. So if i listen to music i like to keep it low enough that you can only hear it if you’re standing right next to my desk, but i notice that when i have music on, one of the other assistants will put music on as well (loudly) and then starting singing to it. Im sure to the other assistants it just seems like noise with two radios going so i quickly turn mine off but i feel like she’s being rude.

    But i also feel like if i say anything then we’ll all be told that to curtail the problem, no music will be allowed at all and i dont want to ruin everything for the other assistants.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hmmm, it might be telling that she only does it when you turn yours on (which probably means that it can heard further than right next to your desk, since she’s responding to it). Any chance it’s an obnoxious move from her to get you to stop?

      1. Jessica*

        It probably is her annoying way of trying to get me tostop however i know she cant hear it at her desk because i get to the office before her and although this may sound nuts i have played the musi
        c and then gone to stand at her desk to see what level i should play the music so it cant be heard before she arrives. Im very adamant about not imposibg on others when it comes to music.

          1. Jessica*

            I have no idea! Its not the moment i put it on though that she turns hers on. We all have to go to each other’s desks at some point or another everyday so she knows its on when she comes to mine but it just bugs me out!

        1. Student*

          This is a big red flag that you have worse hearing than your co-worker.

          Hearing damage is very common, and it can be extremely difficult to notice it yourself. Typically, the only way you ever find out is if someone starts complaining about the volume of your music/TV persistently. Like your co-worker’s passive-aggressive moves when you turn on your music, for instance.

          I say this as a person with hearing damage. It took me years to figure out that I had a problem – I was probably in my mid-twenties before I admitted it to myself, but all the signs were there since grade school for me. I can hold conversations with people easily. However, to hear dialog on TV shows or lyrics in music, I have to listen to it much louder than most other people – loud enough that it actually hurts others with normal hearing. You probably aren’t as bad off as me, but you might very well have some hearing damage.

          Once you realize what’s happening, it’s easy to compensate for it without buying expensive hearing aids for a fairly large range of hearing loss. I strongly suggest you at least consider the possibility.

    2. Milton*

      But I…I was told that I could listen to the radio at a reasonable volume from nine to eleven while I’m collating….

  17. Kelly O*

    When my brother catches me singing along to a song on the radio (usually in the car) he says “Hey Kelly, who sings that?” and when I answer, he will say “let’s keep it that way.” (I play along because it’s a thing with us.)

    I would be sort of tempted to say something like that, although I realize it’s not the most professional response.

    1. Jamie*

      Is that in the brother handbook? Mine used to say that as well, when we were kids.

      Well, he didn’t call me Kelly, but the rest of it was verbatim.

      1. Kelly O*

        If he called you Kelly, I would start questioning more than his taste in music. Unless your middle name is Kelly, then he’s just being a brother.

        Don’t know if you do the “hey, the (insert phrase/person/era here) called, they want their (whatever) back.” That’s another one I have to avoid saying at work. Because seriously Debra Winger called and she wants her Urban Cowboy wardrobe back.

  18. Daniel77*

    “Hold me” by Maria Mena is one really cool annoying office song – best sung in a quire ;) great teambuilding, especially the refrain :D

    1. A Bug!*

      I was humming the Mario song (from NES) one day while I was going over some numbers. I didn’t realize I was doing it until another assistant started accompanying me!

  19. ruby*

    On stuff like this, I tend to use the “What if everyone did it” test, to see if my behavior could be obnoxious/troublesome. In this case, what would it be like working in a room with 15 other people and every one of them bursts out into song at random intervals during the day? I’d find that an annoying place to spend my day (YMMV) so that’s a “no” to singing in the office.

  20. Malissa*

    As someone who talks to herself at work often, I’m starting to get a bit paranoid. I never realized it could bother so much. It’s honestly my way of working out a difficult problem that just doesn’t make sense in my head.
    When there were two of us that do this sitting side-by-side, people assumed we were talking to each other. now it’s just me…

    1. Vicki*

      I used to talk to myself out loud when I work.
      I shared a cubicle with a co-worker who talked to himself while he worked.
      We drove each other batty. All day “Are you talking to me?”
      I “forced” the issue with management and got another cubicle. And I’ve taught myself not to talk to myself out loud at work.
      And I work from home as much as I can.

  21. Athena*

    The person I report to likes to sing to the music while wearing her headphones. She also talks to herself A LOT. I can normally just ignore it, which is fortunate because I don’t think her boss would have a problem with it. (She’d probably think it was cute.)

    But there are definitely times when I want to shake her and tell her to be quiet. However, I think this falls under the yoga instructor thing. If the philosophical environment allows for singing and talking to oneself, I guess I just have to let it go.

    (Plus, when one of my coworkers asked her to stop, she told him she couldn’t help it.)

    1. Susan*

      My coworker said the same thing: “I can’t help it.” Maybe this is insensitive, but I’m guessing they probably could if they tried. Am I wrong? I feel badly saying that.

  22. Sean*

    I’m a singer, love singing, but I feel even in an open-work environment, you just shouldn’t sing whether you’re good or bad at it. It’s distracting even if you have an angelic voice :P

  23. Monica*

    I somehow sense this question isn’t just about humming. While true that it’s annoying as a stand-alone trait, how likely is it that this employee violates a number of workplace faux-pas? Tell the employee about this one thing, but if there’s a laundry list of bizarre and disruptive behavior, I’d actually escalate it.

  24. Sad New Person*

    Oh, this is an issue close to my heart. I recently started a job, and one of the most senior individuals has her radio on all day. I have never been able to concentrate when listening to music. By the end of the day, I want to rest my head against my desk and sob because my head hurts. I feel so uncomfortable asking my coworker to turn it down or off because this is clearly something she has done for a long, long time, and she is so much higher up. No one else seems to mind it, but I’m located the closest to her office (right outside of it). She also…leaves her radio on even when she is out to lunch or at a meeting. I have never listened to so many commercials in my life.

    I also recently learned that she has a hearing disability, which might help to explain why she BLASTS her music quite so loudly.

  25. Flynn*

    One of my favourite parts about working in a library? I get to go hunt down all the people blasting music out their earphones (or, yes, even singing along).

    Most of the time telling them I can hear them from the far end of the room mortifies them. And the other students generally appreciate it. (This is for the quiet-but-not-dead-silent area).

    I do have to be careful though, as I seem to be a lot more sensitive to that kind of noise, so I often sit there going ‘is it loud enough? Can I make them stop yet?’ and quietly going insane.

  26. Anonymous*

    Oh my. I once worked for a few months in an office where one of the employees (open office layout) would do this. She also sneezed so loudly I’d jump every time…which made everyone else laugh at me. I never said anything, because this was an office with constant distraction: the radio was turned out first thing in the morning to pop music, which blared all day long, staff were constantly talking on the phone (work and non-work calls), and conversations (work and non-work) were shouted across the room, sometimes, two different conversations at one time.

  27. Anonymous*

    Thanks everyone – I’ve been singing, humming and whistling more than usual after this post. :-D

  28. Hugo*

    Are posters like this really that helpless? I mean, honestly, you really have to find out from a website how to handle a situation like this?

    I like stories like this one for entertainment value, but I can’t believe people can’t handle their own problems.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Um, yes, lots of people aren’t sure how to politely navigate situations that require them to potentially make someone uncomfortable. It’s not unusual.

    2. Charles*

      Unlike school, there really isn’t anyone to enforce “discipline and order” in the workplace like a teacher or hall monitor.

      So, yea, someone new to the workplace (or even someone who is just unsure of themselves) might reach out to AAM (or anyone else) for advice.

      One thing that I can tell you is that as a trainer I am often the first person that new hires have a connection to, seem as something of an authority figure (but without any poner to fire them). I guess that has made me someone they often feel safe in confiding to about such stuff. And, so, I have been asked some real no-brainer questions over the years. But, I always tell them it is better to ask then make assumptions.

    3. Indie_Rachael*

      *shrugs* I guess some people actually care about not doing something that would make them sound like an ass.

      And judging from the wide range of opinion on the topic, it sounds like it was a good thing OP sought feedback.

  29. Anonymous*

    I guess I’m lucky that my office will spontaneously break into song. Most of us do it from time to time. We also rarely walk around with shoes on and shout down the hall as needed.

    During one memorable manager training event, we’d spent all day making stupid paper airplanes. (some of you may know this project) At the end, we were tired, cranky and had paper cuts. So, I pulled out my phone, turned on Pandora and we rocked out to Christmas music for an hour or so, while making yet more paper airplanes.

    1. Jason*

      You sound like my ‘workplace’, and I use that term loosely. Does anyone in your office actually get anything done?

    1. Charles*

      ha! Years ago (over 20) I worked as a seasonal employee at a well-known (although now closed) TV/electronics store. We were all allowed to play whatever music we wanted to demo the stereos to customer; except the store manger actually forbid anyone of us from playing Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing.”

      There were a couple of snarky employees who would play it anyway just to get his reaction. Boy, could he throw a fit!

      ” . . . We gotta move these color TV’s”

  30. Dima*

    Well I have the same exact problem. I told my boss. He told me he cannot talk to him cause he has a low voice (Which is not) and my other major problem that everyone around me encourages him to sing…
    And when i bring it up, people tell me, use headphones ,, but i cannot listen to loud music for 10 hours!!!
    I really don’t know what to do :(

  31. Sherrie*

    I have a coworker who sings loudly all day. When another coworker politely asked her to stop, explaining that her singing made it difficult for others to concentrate, she became offended. She continues to sing loudly. She feels that people who do not enjoy her constant singing are just unhappy people.

  32. Jason*

    Similar problem. I work in an accounting department where a coworker decided it would be a good idea to bring in a radio and turn it on loud enough for everyone to “enjoy”. The problem is that half the group likes it and half the group hates it. My manager, who is very into new age dogma, and “everything is positive except me” crap has sided with the group that wants the radio. I and others have mentioned how annoying it is, and sometimes even offensive for certain individuals depending on what’s being played. As for me, any music bothers me as I’m OCD, and trying to concentrate on my balancing, and not the plethora of mind-numbingly stupid pop songs getting stuck in my head instead. HR has made it pretty clear they will not assist. What recourse do I have ? Are my only options to “deal with it” or quit?

      1. Jason*

        Yeah, I have countered by wearing earplugs and been told to take them out by the boss. I told her I’ll take them out when the radio is gone and that without them, I cannot concentrate. She told me that maybe I should see a doctor and get drugs for that and that I had ADD. Her bosses said its not their problem and that I have to go through the “chain of command”. Its starting to become a matter of principle. I think next time its turned on, I’m just going to walk over and turn it off.

          1. Jason*

            Yeah, I messed with the speaker cables to short the speakers. But I’ve since come to the conclusion that it wasn’t a place were I could work anymore without actually snapping. I have since quit and am now dirt poor and happy working on my own. I am also participating in an apprenticeship program for work I could do on my own.

  33. Amear*

    Cure Found for Mr Tappy Tappy!

    I work in a office, very open, and houses 30 or so co-worker, and we validate data entry….. very boring…. very quiet.

    Because of recent restructuring I have been moved beside an old french man who is a one man band tapping machine. The first 3 days after moving, I couldn’t concentrate from the knuckle tapping, and foot stomping. I even brought anger home with me.

    It’s like he was a circus show over there. I don’t know how he stayed on his chair without falling off. (I can not only hear the noise with headphones on, but feel the vibrations through my desk)

    Fed up, I tapped back. We share a dividing wall, and it has a support column. I tapped back un-rhythmically for an hour straight against this post, making vibrations carry through his desk, physically disturbing him. And since he is a self proclaimed “musical person”, the un-rhythmic part drastically consumes his attention

    As soon as I started randomly silently kicking the column, his tapping stopped. But I didn’t, for an hour straight!

    This has re-occurred a couple times since.

    But now as soon as he starts up his tapping machine, I give one silent kick to the support column, and all is silent.

    Occasionally his tapping is reduced to 5% of what it was, and I can bare with that, but one swift kick to the post and all is curred for a while.
    Additional story: He also was a hallway farter…. we all knew it…. he thought no one knew who it was because we couldn’t see him. One day head management heard him and loudly said for all to hear “(Dirty old french man…) that’s discusting…. we all know it’s you, did you just shyt your pants?… yuck….” And it never happened again

  34. carol*

    I have had a similar situation at my work… I am 39 and befriended a lady that is 58. At first it was fine and then it became worse… Almost every morning she was then in my office when I was trying to get ready for work and then during lunch times and then in afternoons and throughout the day sometimes. The it started to almost feel like she was trying to compete with me and said she wanted a fairytale life like mine and wanted to feel wonderful like me. One day she game into my office joking around as she saw my fitness magazine and commented on getting a fat stomach in your fifties and said “this is what you will get”. Well I just dont like negativity and said when i am 60 i will have a perfect body and she said no one does saying it isnt possible… i very slender and athletic and and lead a healthy life. She went and told another co-worker that I said she wasnt fit for her age… which i didnt, and which she isn’t at all healthy and as fit as she could be for her age, but i would NEVER say that to anyone. Bottom line, I didnt like someone telling me what I cant do! Really unwarranted and negative and like the manager commented to you that it is not your issue but your co-workers issues of insecurity of her body and overall unhappiness in her life… As much as I hated to do it I started to redefine the boundaries of our relationship as I only want good karma and postitive energy in my life, plus I wanted MY time back to learn italian on my lunch break, read my book in the morning and just relax . Several others things also had occured. I felt that the relationship was only taking away from my life and not adding to it and their were far more importants things that I wanted to do than to sit and talk to someone was not positive.

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