They’re taking Zoom calls without headphones. They’re strolling over to your desk in sweaty gym clothes. And, yup, they’re microwaving fish again.
Back at the office, the quirks suddenly seem louder, grosser and harder than ever to confront. Our tolerance for other humans has grown thin. Working from home, when co-workers grated on us, we could screen their calls, mute their Zoom square or let out a low-level scream after tapping ‘leave meeting.’
Not only are we stuck with each other in the office, plenty of us also got weird during the WFH years.
“This is what happens when you cut people off socially,” says Tessa West, a New York University psychology professor who studies uncomfortable interactions. “We developed some habits that are nonnormative, that were totally fine in our houses. Now we’re having a hard time letting go.”
She’s observed colleagues in her workplace entering conference rooms without shoes and painting their nails at their desk. The line of what’s acceptable seems to have shifted—for some people, at least.
“We all used to have a shared reality of what you can and can’t do at work,” Dr. West says. “Now we’re in a place where we’re all kind of disagreeing about what the rules are.”
Here’s how to take back control and gracefully set some boundaries, while keeping your career and sanity intact.
Turn down the volume
Offices are loud. Jennifer Edwards, a California-based coach and partner at a venture-capital fund, was recently at a client site when a worker decided to take a FaceTime call. On speakerphone. In the middle of the open office.
“He was shushing us,” she says.
The key to changing behavior is to acknowledge the other person before presenting your ask, Ms. Edwards says.
Ask if now is a good time to have a conversation. Say something kind and true; for example, “I can see you’re really passionate.” Then, the request: “Can you wear headphones so the rest of us can stay focused?”
If the person bristles, reframe it as a joint problem-solving exercise, says Suzanne de Janasz, who teaches negotiation and conflict resolution at George Mason University. Use phrases like, “Have you noticed?” or “What’s your take?”
“We’re adults. We want to make decisions for ourselves,” she says. “When you tell me what to do, I’m going to get defensive and push back.”
Speaking up can be hard, Dr. de Janasz acknowledges, especially when so many of us just want to be liked. Staying mum will only stoke your resentment, though, and sends a message of its own.
“Saying nothing is saying it’s OK,” she says.
Tackle smells, fidgeting—and worse
Start small. Sometimes nonverbal cues do the trick. If someone is a chronic finger tapper, nail biter or soup slurper, try looking them in the eyes and raising an eyebrow. It radiates “I see you,” without being too aggressive, says Vanessa Van Edwards, an author of books about communication and body language.
Poke fun at yourself. Something like, “I’m so sorry, I’m so used to working by myself that I’m not a normal human,” she says. (But also, can you please stop clipping your nails at your desk?)
In a way, this moment of office returns has freed us to talk about things that irk us. After years away, we have a fresh slate, Ms. Van Edwards says. Invite your team to a casual conversation about pandemic vices, she suggests, and then create some boundaries for everyone. Jared has taken to eating last night’s leftovers at 9:30 am? Cool, but all food stays in the office kitchen.
Think of one-on-one interventions as an opportunity to help your colleague avoid future awkwardness, says Daniel Post Senning, the great-great-grandson of manners guru Emily Post and author of several etiquette books.
You may want to stay quiet if you don’t have a close relationship with the person, or fear a conflict that could hurt your career. But if you’re in the right spot, start by explaining your intentions. You’re raising a sensitive topic because you care about the person, or care about everyone’s comfort at the office. Be specific. Vague comments about good hygiene aren’t going to help someone address bad breath, he says.
Brace for things to go sideways. If they get angry, don’t ratchet up the conversation. Be OK with letting them have the last word.
Fend off secondary stress
You know that colleague who’s always spewing negative gossip and doomsday scenarios about the company? Their anxiety and stress can catch on, says Dr. West, the NYU psychologist and author of a book about toxic work personas.
The good news: The contagion’s only in the air for about 20 minutes after they’ve had their triggering event (say, a tense meeting with their boss), Dr. West says. Take note of when they tend to blow through the office like a tornado, and take a walk or grab a cup of coffee at those times. In meetings with them, have a script of what you want to cover.
Silently labeling what’s happening can help, says Ms. Van Edwards, the communication expert.
“There she goes,” Ms. Van Edwards says you can tell yourself. “She’s in her panic mode.” Recognizing and describing it takes away its power, putting you back in control.
Are you the problem?
The scariest news about the annoying person at the office? At some point, it’s probably you.
Are your co-workers staring when you make personal calls from your desk? If you didn’t love tuna so much, would you be happy to have the odor wafting into your cubicle? Ask a co-worker you trust to tell you if your professional demeanor is off, Mr. Senning says.
Jot down the triggers that make your own heart rate go up at the office, Dr. West says, and avoid ambushing other colleagues until you’ve calmed back down. When you want to vent to someone, ask.
“I had a really bad experience,” Dr. West suggests saying. “Is now a good time to talk about it?”
After all, the more we catch ourselves, the fewer awkward conversations we’ll all have to have.
Write to Rachel Feintzeig at Rachel.Feintzeig@wsj.com
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