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Office whistler or pen clicker – but for some people, these noises are a full-blown aural assault!

Office whistler or pen clicker – but for some people, these noises are a full-blown aural assault!

According to a 2015 survey of the most annoying office noises by Avanta Serviced Office Group, conversations were rated the most vexing, closely followed by coughing, sneezing and sniffing, loud phone voices, ringing phones and whistling. Why do we find it so hard to be around these everyday noises? What is it about them that allows them to lodge in our brains and make it impossible to think?

There is an extraordinary amount of variability in what individuals can tolerate. Working to music is extremely common; a 2011 study of nearly 300 office employees in the UK showed that, on average, they spent nearly a third of their working week listening to various genres. Some said they thought it helped them to concentrate. Others liked it for the exact opposite reason – that it provided a welcome distraction while they worked. Some companies even override individual preferences altogether and broadcast music around their entire in an attempt to improve their employees’ productivity.

A person’s level of extroversion is thought to be a key aspect of their personality – one of the so-called ‘Big Five’ factors that determines who we are, along with things like how open we are to new experiences. According to one prominent theory, extroverts are inherently ‘understimulated’, so they tend to seek out situations which increase their level of arousal – like noisy environments. Meanwhile, introverts have the opposite problem; as the famous poet, novelist and introvert Charles Bukowski put it: “People empty me. I have to get away to refill.”

With this in mind, it makes sense that more introverted workers would be more affected by the background noise, since anything that increases their level of arousal, like music or the chatter of colleagues, could be overwhelming. For example, a study of medical students showed that those who were more introverted tended to have more difficulty concentrating, and feel more fatigued while performing a maths task to a soundtrack of 88-decibel traffic noise (for perspective, that’s about as loud as a lawn mower).

Other major factors that are likely to influence if a colleague is the office whistler, or the person fantasising about rugby-tackling them to the floor, include how neurotic they are(research has shown that more neurotic people are more affected by background noise when they’re trying to do mental maths), as well as their level of so-called “inhibitory control”, which roughly translates as how much control they have over their impulses.

The reasons that some people get so riled up by oddly niche sounds, like ice shaking or lettuce chewing, are less clear. Research into misophonia might provide some clues; several studies have found that the brains of people with the disorder are fundamentally different. For example, a 2017 study showed that “trigger sounds” lead to stronger-than-usual reactions in parts of the brain that are involved with processing emotions and interpreting bodily signals, such as pain.

In fact, misophonia is surprisingly common. One study of undergraduate students showed that as many as one in five were consistently bothered by specific sounds, such as throat clearing.

And if the sound of a colleague chewing their morning croissant makes you want to scream into your keyboard, you’re in scholarly company. The naturalist Charles Darwin, the writer Anton Chekhov and the novelist Marcel Proust are all thought to have suffered from the condition. In Proust’s case, he was even motivated to cover the walls of his office with cork for soundproofing, then he would take the additional precaution of wearing earplugs. This might be because the condition involves the inability to shut out irrelevant sensory information – in the form of background noise – and this has been linked to creativity.

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