‘A Co-worker Left Me an Anonymous Note … and a Pacifier’

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A reader writes:

About two weeks ago, I came in to work and found a manila envelope on my desk. It had my name written on the front. I opened it up and was stunned to find a typed note that read “Dear Loud Talker, I know more about your TV-watching habits than anyone sitting 30 feet away from you ever should. Please be more quiet. Thank you.”

I was both mortified and angry. The tone of the letter was super rude and dismissive, not to mention totally childish to type an anonymous note. I also come in earlier than most of the office (around 8:30), so this means the note-writer came in extra early to hand deliver it, which just makes me uncomfortable. 

For the record, I do sometimes talk loudly, especially when I am excited about a topic. This is something I am aware of, and actively working on. However, we sit in an open cubicle environment. I hear other people’s conversations all day long, from medical issues to child-care conundrums. It’s just part of working in an open office.

I was upset by the note, but decided to let it go. Then, today I came into work and found a pacifier sitting on my desk. There was no note, even though it was sitting next to my cup of pens and a Post-it note stack. I can only assume this was another passive-aggressive dig at me to be quiet. 

I went into the bathroom and cried. Since I received the note, I have intentionally NOT engaged in playful conversations with my teammates. I have been walking around on eggshells in fact! I tried to talk to my boss’s boss about it, but he is at a conference all week. My direct boss knows about both incidents but hasn’t done anything, though she agrees they are inappropriate. What do I do? I feel kind of ridiculous going to HR about a typed note and baby pacifier — this is all so odd. 

Someone left you a pacifier on your desk?! That’s so incredibly mean-spirited that it sounds like something from a movie about teenage bullies, not something you’d expect in an office of adults. (I’m assuming, of course, that it was left there intentionally and not dropped by an office-visiting baby. But pacifiers don’t usually randomly turn up in offices.) It’s so beyond what’s reasonable to expect in an office that whoever did it is not playing by normal rules here.

And that’s particularly irritating because before the pacifier turned up and we were just working with the note, I was going to tell you that the person might have a valid point, if you are indeed regularly talking more loudly than others.

But now what might have been a legitimate message is getting overshadowed by the person’s truly terrible choices in delivering it.

So let’s separate those out and treat them like two different things. Frankly, this person has behaved so horridly that it’s tempting not to bother considering their message at all. But there can be value even in rudely delivered feedback, so let’s put their lack of charm aside and explore it for a minute.

Since you acknowledge that you do tend to talk loudly, there might really be an issue here that a colleague would be bothered by. You’re right that in an open office, overhearing other people is unavoidable. But an open office plan is actually more reason to be really thoughtful about how loud you are, because the effect can be so much more pronounced. It can be maddening to need to focus while you’re trapped in a space with loud people. So it’s possible that you do need to do a better job of modulating your volume.

But that doesn’t make it okay for a co-worker to handle that by being an enormous jerk.

It’s not even just the pacifier. The anonymous note wasn’t a great choice either. Anonymous notes are rarely the way to handle something at work (or in life, for that matter). They’re cruel, because the recipient now has to suspect everyone around them of leaving the note, and they deny the person the chance to talk face-to-face about whatever the complaint is. They’re a terrible way to communicate. And in this case, it sounds like the tone of the note was gratuitously rude, as well.

There’s no reason that this person couldn’t simply have come to you in person and said, “Hey, could you try to keep your voice down? It really carries here and can be distracting.” That’s an utterly normal conversation that people have in offices all the time.

Of course, it’s true that some people are incredibly bad at speaking up, and so they look for less direct ways of delivering that kind of message. But usually when people are afraid to make basic requests like this, it’s because they’re afraid that they’ll come across as too confrontational or rude. This person does not seem to have any qualms about being rude, though; they just want the cover of anonymity. It’s cowardly on top of being mean.

As for what to do about it … Mean as this is, it’s not at the level of something that you should escalate to your boss’s boss or HR. It’s more a one-time mention to your boss herself, because it’s useful for her to be aware that this kind of personal nastiness is happening on her team, and because she might decide to talk to your whole team about how to work effectively in an open space and how to handle grievances professionally. But because your boss already knows, there’s not much more you can do here. That said, if anything else like this happens, at that point you can argue you’re being harassed (not in the legal sense, but in the colloquial sense) and push for stronger action.

Meanwhile, please don’t walk on eggshells to cater to a jerk. Yes, you should be thoughtful about how loud you’re being, but so should everyone — and that definitely doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t talk at all. Talk at the same rate as other people do; just know that you have volume tendencies that you need to pay attention to.

And don’t let yourself be too thrown off by anonymous hate mail. This person’s complaint is ultimately about a pretty mundane office problem, and the level of vitriol that they chose to direct at you rather than just having a face-to-face conversation is not only unwarranted, but it exposes them as an immature jerk with no sense of scale. That’s not someone who deserves to have any power over how you feel at work.

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‘A Co-worker Left Me an Anonymous Note … and a Pacifier’