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The question

My co-workers are driving me crazy. Two women behind me talk at least six hours every day, mostly about soaps and other TV shows. Another one makes long personal phone calls, speaking loudly in a foreign language. Two others, I found out, are monitoring my whereabouts in the office. And next to me is a girl with a charm on her bracelet that hits the desk with every key stroke. I asked her if there was something she could do about the bracelet hitting the desk. She said I needed to suck it up and deal with it. Now she has added more charms to the bracelet and a watch with a loose band that also hangs down and hits the desk. She likes to eat fruit from a medium-size Ziploc bag at her desk, which can take up to an hour and a half. Then nuts from a bag one at a time, and so on. I asked my supervisor to move me to another desk. She asked the woman to tone down her jewellery. Then I got called into the office about talking first thing in the morning. They wouldn't give me any details. I'm guessing I haven't handled this situation in the best way for me. But what do I do going forward? I've been with the company a long time. But I need to type detailed descriptive documents and cannot concentrate.

The answer

"Hell is other people" the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said.

And he might have added: "… and often this is most evident in an open-concept-type office situation."

Which is why, personally, I like working alone, from my home office (or garage office, technically, since it's in my garage – I always picture my kids telling their future therapists: "My father went into the garage every day, even though he wasn't a mechanic …").

Of course, sometimes I get lonely, and pine to see other people during the day. But then, I'll get a job and be in a meeting where someone, for whom the sound of his/her own voice is like the most enchanting Mozartian symphony, is droning on and on,and I can feel my soul being sucked up through the ceiling vents, and I'll think: "What are you doing, Dave? You belong out in the freelance trenches, bullets pinging off your helmet."

But you, madam, your circumstances are such it makes me want to ask: "Did you, say, step in front of a bus at some point, then wake up in your office, puzzled about what happened?"

Because it seems like you may genuinely be in hell. Your torments are so infernally specific. I mean, to take one random example, how is it possible to stretch the eating of fruit from a "medium-size" Ziploc baggie into an hour and a half?

And the air full of someone speaking loudly in a foreign language; the fact no one seems to be doing any actual work, yet they're "monitoring" your movements; your co-worker not only refusing to accommodate your request about her noisy bracelet, but actually adding more charms and a jangly watch – it all has a dreamlike, Kafkaesque quality to it.

To the point where I would say my advice is either a) get another job, or b) find a way to tune it all out.

You've tried complaining directly to your hellish co-workers.

And your supervisor. And I don't think you can take your complaints to HR: too difficult to prove and put your finger on. It'd probably just involve you in further bureaucratic entanglements and create an elevated atmosphere of inter-office hostility.

Now, notion (a) might seem extreme – and it sounds a bit idealistic and/or naive on my part, but I do believe everyone has a purpose on this Earth and perhaps yours isn't "typing detailed documents" while everyone around you is yakking and snacking.

Sounds like you have a lot of seniority, but that could carry weight also at another company, where you might find more congenial, less paranoia-inducing co-workers.

(You might also want to take a moment to ask if you could be part of the problem. Certain clues – like you mentioning you were called on the carpet for vague/unspecified reasons and are clearly disliked, both for reasons you only seem to have a hazy grasp of – are red flags.)

If you choose option (b), my advice is simple: noise-suppression headphones. Plug them into your computer or some other device and listen to ambient music or white noise or waves lapping on the beach.

I hardly think your supervisor, who doesn't sound like he/she is doing a lot of actual supervising, would object. Sounds to me as if you're about the only one getting any work done in your office.

God invented headphones for a reason: to tune out other people, and the hell they bring.

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