A Handy Dandy Cubicle Etiquette Guide

Credit: ThinkStock

Credit: ThinkStock

The walls have ears, my friend, and so do your co-workers. Be careful what you cry about.

There's no doubt about it, the office cubicle is indeed a strange bird. Although it gives the illusion of privacy, it's anything but. There's no door, no ceiling, and the walls generally don't rise above eye level. Plus you hear everything, especially things you're not supposed to. Even whispers seem amplified. And those expensive, supposedly sound-proof dividers aren't really effective.

How to survive life in a box without driving you—or your office mates—crazy? Perhaps cubicle etiquette warrants a list of don'ts.

Don't go over the top.

Even if you can easily see over the top of the partition, don't look. You shouldn't make eye contact with the cubicle inhabitant unless you have actual business with them. Can you imagine how exasperating it is being in the box right near the john or the kitchen (I was!), ogled nonstop by coffee-guzzlers with weak bladders? A polite hello is fine a couple of times a day but every time you go to the pantry for a caffeine fix? Not so much.

Don't talk.

You can utter a quiet "Hi" in passing, but don't hunker down for a long chat. Trying to get work done with people breezing by unannounced from nine to five can be an unwelcome challenge.

Don't make stupid small talk.

If you do talk, make sure it's not insipid. It's not necessary and no one needs it, so don't do it. In fact, folks might even dread it. I once worked with a woman who'd constantly make inane comments whenever she passed my cube: "Oh, so you're eating a banana!" No, I'm practicing my oral sex chops.

Don't eat stinky food.

A nice chicken curry or a Filet O'Fish Sandwich is fine to chow down on outside of the office but don't make the mistake of bringing it back to your place. It not only funks up your cubicle but everyone else's. Besides, you wouldn't want someone to comment: "Oh, so you're eating curry!"

Don't eat noisy food.

It might not seem like it to you but those Sun Chips you're crunching sound like you're chomping on ground glass to everyone around you. Ditto for the candied cashews you pop at three every afternoon to keep your energy level from sagging. Stick to quiet, considerate, odor-free foods like yogurt and soft granola bars.

Don't chew your cud.

Even if you eat silent foods, make sure to chew quietly, just like you would if the CEO were sitting across from you at a luncheon table. You'd be surprised at how sound carries.

Don't grumble.

I thought my manager was the nicest, kindest human on the planet-until I moved to the cube next to hers. That woman sighed profusely, cursed under her breath and continuously grumbled. Sweet as key lime pie on the phone, the second she hung up, it was: "What an asshole!" and "That's bullshit!"

Don't listen.

Yep, that's a tough one, but tune out your cube companions as much as possible. Wear headphones. Play classical music at a low volume. Get a white noise machine. Whatever it takes.

Don't share.

Keep your private conversations private, especially medical ones. No one wants to hear that your pap smear came back abnormal or that you have a plantar wart. Make personal calls in the conference room or in a vacant office, if possible. Or better yet, keep them out of the workplace entirely.

Don't be a washerwoman.

Resist the temptation to chat through cubicle walls. It's the uncouth equivalent of shouting from room to room. (Which I'm guilty of; ask my husband.) No one cares that you and Elaine are going to Chipotle for lunch. Get up, make eye contact (this time, it's okay) and address the person you're talking to, not everyone else within earshot.

Don't enter uninvited.

Even though there's no door, always ask for permission to enter a coworker's cubicle. Just like the civilian-to-captain "Request permission to come aboard, sir," it's protocol and it's polite. But don't do that fake knock-knock thing, pretending there is a door. That's just plain annoying.

Don't be emo.

I once overheard a cubicle neighbor sobbing, "Oh, no!...Oh, my God!…No, no!…" I thought Laura's mother had died but instead her cat needed surgery. The walls have ears, my friend, and so do your co-workers. Be careful what you cry about.

Don't say a thing…really.

Every afternoon, my friend Billy overheard an office-mate berating his girlfriend when the guy came back tipsy from his mostly liquid lunch. Although he bit his tongue to the quick, Billy didn't say a word. "He was calling his girlfriend, 'a dumb bitch,' " Billy explained. "Do you think he'd respect what a virtual stranger had to say?"

Don't repeat after me.

Never, under any circumstances do you repeat anything you've heard through a cubicle wall. As much as it kills you. Even if your colleague confesses that they have Jimmy Hoffa stuffed into the trunk of their Prius. Even if they say something racist, sexist, politically incorrect, psychotic—or all four. Don't call them on it. A cubicle is a lot like a confessional or Vegas; what goes on in there stays in there.

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