Layoffs loom large, war is upon us, and in a cubicle near you, someone is at his wits' end, ready to scream, because a co-worker a few feet away, on the other side of the drab corkboard wall, loudly slurps his coffee all morning -- then repeats in the afternoon.
We spend hours with these people, probably more time than we do with family and friends. And in most cases, we share very open space with them. Between time and proximity, we're bound to get on one another's nerves. And it's often the little things, the things we don't realize we do, that annoy our co-workers the most: the tapping of fingers, the clipping of fingernails, the flossing of teeth after lunch, the sniffling during allergy season.
Yes, I'm sure many of you would say, "Be happy you have a job, nail clipper or not." True. But still: That nail-clipping cube mate can really drive you up the wall and make you wish you had another job -- any other job.
"Let me tell you the story of . . . the sword in our side," wrote one employee from a firm in Chicago. He couldn't talk on the phone, as the aforementioned sword was sitting in her usual close proximity. Among his complaints: She hacks all day, blaming it on a cold or asthma. She's also an up-close-talking, breathe-down-your-neck kind of woman.
The Chicago man did have a moment to chat (and vent) by cell phone outside the office last week.
"Right now, she's in our manager's office, talking about her coughing," he said. Ah, finally. To try to combat the annoyance of her constant cough, her co-workers had asked her what was wrong. But no one told her they couldn't concentrate with the hacking in their face. It almost makes one feel sorry for her, doesn't it? "No" was the man's quick response.
Remember Janice on the television show "Friends"? One woman sat near a co-worker who talked and cackled as loudly as dear old Janice. How did this woman handle her Janice-like colleague?
"I learned to tune it out," she said. "She was quite the socialite. It was just hard, but you can't get mad at them for who they are."
After a while, the woman realized that only when she wasn't focused on work did this cackling make her want to run screaming from the office.
Lest you think the nail-clipper annoyance was an exaggeration, during last week's Life at Work online discussion, someone from the District wrote in to say that a guy in the nearby office regularly cuts his nails. "The distinct 'click' of the clippers is DRIVING ME INSANE," this person wrote. "He is much higher up than I am, and we do not have much rapport, so I don't feel like I could just say, 'Hey, you are driving me up the wall.' . . . I've closed my door, I've tried to block it out, but it's like the tell-tale heart. . . . It is starting to make my brain itch!!!!"
I suggested this person focus on work, the way the Janice co-worker did. But one human resources official with a Northern Virginia company wonders why people don't just communicate about these seemingly small things, which can build resentment and eventually affect productivity.
"I see people sitting back to back in the same cubicle and they send e-mails to each other," she gasped. She said communicating can take care of these annoying habits before they turn into serious resentment or a blowup between co-workers.
"People are afraid of embarrassing someone, or they are risk-averse," she said.
One situation she'll never forget is when a manager came to her with a complaint that a co-worker had, um, body odor, and the manager didn't know what to do about it. The human resources woman went to take care of the situation and found, to her dismay, that the manager had moved everyone away from the smelly co-worker, so the offensive offender was sitting by himself. Talk about embarrassing.
She said she dealt with the situation by facing it. She asked him (kindly) if he was aware he had a strong body odor. (Yes, it makes me shudder just thinking about saying this to someone.) But rather than coming right out and telling him that he stank, she eased into the conversation, asking if he had changed his diet, his deodorant or something else.
The offender was mortified -- he had no idea that was what his co-workers thought of him. He fixed the problem and everything worked out fine in the end (despite a probably bruised ego).
"I'd rather just tell them," the human resources woman said. "I'd want them to tell me."
Join Amy Joyce on Tuesday from 11 a.m. to noon at www.washingtonpost.com for a Life at Work Live Online discussion. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org with your own workplace issues and comments.