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Tips to Survive the Cubicle Circus


Politeness and proper etiquette are two qualities employers expect from their employees. But that's easier said than done when your office space is a cubicle, and there is no such thing as privacy: your computer screen is on display, everyone knows when you eat garlic chicken for lunch, and your personal telephone conversations can easily become public knowledge.

Well, James Thompson is here to help you avoid awkward moments at work. Here's an example.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

Unidentified Woman #1: Hello?

Unidentified Woman #2: Hi, Laura. This is Dr. Baker from General Hospital. The nurse tells me the symptoms you've been experiencing, and I think I have an answer for you.

Unidentified Woman #1: Do I have hemorrhoids? Damn, I knew it. I feel like I'm sitting on a campfire.

Unidentified Woman #2: Well, actually you do.

Unidentified Woman #1: Oh my God. What kind of medication do you recommend? I hope not some smelly cream. That stuff makes me nauseated.

Unidentified Woman #2: I recommend applying a new odorless ointment called Hyposoapidin(ph).

Unidentified Woman #1: That sounds expensive. Does my insurance cover problems with my rectum?

HANSEN: That's a scenario that actually is included in James Thompson's book. The book is "The Cubicle Survival Guide," and he's in our Washington studio. Hi, James, welcome.

Mr. JAMES THOMPSON (Author, "The Cubicle Survival Guide: Keeping Your Cool in the Least Hospitable Environment on Earth"): Thank you for having me.

HANSEN: What would've been the proper way to handle that conversation?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, you want to deal with more generalities. So you want to do things that will require a yes or no answer from your end of the telephone. So when you say is this something I should be worried about, you know, or they tell you - they'll give you the symptoms or something like that, and you say okay that's great, thank you for the specifics, I'll get back to you later -and then you can come back later with a phone call from your cell phone or preferably from your home or some place like that.

HANSEN: Being in such close proximity and being open, I mean, it seems to invite a lot of visitors to come and say hi, simply because you're there. Is there some way to deal with it without putting people off, saying look, I really need to work, but...

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, if the offender is reasonable, put it that way. If they can't take a hint, you're probably in trouble, and you're going to have to escalate your defenses, basically, to keep them away, particularly when you're really busy, and you're trying to be productive, and they just won't seem to go away. Lingering is never a good idea.

HANSEN: You suggest don't put out candy, people are going to visit you all the time.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, that does happen. I've seen it happen quite often, actually, and I think if you're in a position where you - it's important for you to know everybody and to be, you know, socially - like, for example if you're in human resources or something like that. But yeah, otherwise you don't want to, you know, become a sort of feeding station for all of your fellow colleagues.

HANSEN: Do you work in a cubicle?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yes, I do.

HANSEN: Really?


HANSEN: So what's the biggest problem you've had?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: That's interesting because I still work there. The biggest problem - thankfully, the people I work with are fantastic, and we have a really open dialogue. And you know, it's one of those things where you work so long with everybody every day that things could go either way: either it can be kind of confrontational, or you have a sort of comfortable setting.

It's almost like where you live, you know, with your neighbors and your neighborhood. If your neighbor is really kind of uptight and a jerk and has all these - a lot of comments about how you live your life and what you put in your yard and how you upkeep your grass, it's going to be tough.

But if your cubicle neighbors, if you make a good-faith effort to become friends with them and let everybody know they're in the same situation, and -that way when you say something, it's kind of more of a joke.

But for me, the biggest thing is you know, I'll turn around and say, you know, to somebody, it's like, oh, you know, your cell phone, the ringer's on. I think it's, you know, your husband for the 10th time today. You might want to, you know, put it on vibrate; or, yeah, we know they cook food in the microwave, and they bring it, and it just kind of sits, and, you know - we're all - none of us are perfect, so I break some of my own rules, but they'll call me on it.

HANSEN: James Thompson is the author of "The Cubicle Survival Guide," and he joined us in our studios in Washington. Thanks for your time.

Mr. THOMPSON: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Liane Hansen
Liane Hansen has been the host of NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday for 20 years. She brings to her position an extensive background in broadcast journalism, including work as a radio producer, reporter, and on-air host at both the local and national level. The program has covered such breaking news stories as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, Jr., and the Columbia shuttle tragedy. In 2004, Liane was granted an exclusive interview with former weapons inspector David Kay prior to his report on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The show also won the James Beard award for best radio program on food for a report on SPAM.
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