My friend, call him Michael, is smart, energetic, passionate about what he does—and a really loud talker.
This never bothered me when we worked in the same office in the 1990s because, well, like the classic loud talker that he is, Michael doesn't vary his volume all that much. He's loud when he says hi, loud when he says bye and loud at pretty much every interval in between. No outbursts. No surprises. To be honest, I barely noticed.
Mary was one of those people who just can't stand loud talking, and, to her credit, she was direct and honest. She politely asked Michael to keep it down. Then she told Michael to keep it down. Finally one day, she told him, quite loudly, in front of everyone, for maybe the third time in the space of a few hours.
"I can't tell when I'm too loud," Michael complained, clearly frustrated.
"Just assume you're too loud," Mary said.
Ha! Ha! Yes, I laughed. Everyone laughed. That Mary is such a card. But the thing is, when the laughter died down, I felt really bad. It had finally dawned on me that we were laughing at Michael for a behavior he really couldn't control. We weren't being kind or fair, and we sure as heck weren't solving the problem.
Fast forward to the present, and once again I'm working in an office with a classic loud talker. Her cubicle mate reports that the loud talker is one of the nicest people on earth but loud to the point that it's hard to work. The cubicle mate has tried to make the point with gentle wit, but the message doesn't seem to take. What now?
I turned to Andrew Dunlop, who launched the 12-member Loud Talkers Defense Front on Facebook after a funny but poignant conversation with some high-volume friends.
"I was sensing this genuine angst over the treatment that we've received," he says.
Most loud talkers are completely unaware of the disruption they're causing, he says, and many have a hard time gauging their own volume. Co-workers make unfair assumptions about them based on their noise level or go behind their backs to complain, neither of which is productive.
A better approach, he says, is to:
Be diplomatic: Never confront the loud talker in front of other people. He or she will be embarrassed as it is; an audience makes the experience worse.
Be kind: Use a wind-up such as "I'm not trying to hurt your feelings, but we all work in close proximity and I need to make you aware of this."
Be direct: Tell the loud talker what the problem is. Going over his or her head without warning may be perceived – quite rightly – as backstabbing.
Be creative: Dunlop says he can control his volume much of the time – but there will always be "incidents." In some cases, reshuffling seats or offices may be the answer.
"Maybe [the loud talker] should program an Outlook reminder every half hour: 'Are you talking too loud?' That's what I did," says Dunlop.
And did it work?
Dunlop laughs: "To an extent."
Office Hours appears weekly in TribU. If you have a work-related question—and remember, no question is too serious or too silly—send a note to Nara Schoenberg at email@example.com.