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How Do I Handle An Annoying Gum-Chewing Co-Worker?

Welcome to the first edition of Survey Says, FiveThirtyEight’s new advice column. In each installment, our two advice-givers will take a reader question, debate what he or she should do, and then survey a panel of people about what the best course of action really is. Need our advice? Send us your quandary!

I work in a large open “bullpen” with three desks in each of a dozen or so rows. People are alternately on the phone or a computer, and it can be loud sometimes, but not deafening. My co-worker incessantly pops and sucks gum, even pulling it in and out of her mouth with her fingers. The offending gum chewer has been at it for a couple of months, and though I’ve heard one or two people joke about the popping, no one has ever confronted the perpetrator. Many of the employees in this area are just past entry level, working on specific contracts, and the gum chewer is a manager, jovial but a bit thin-skinned. It’s driving me mad! What should I do? — Misophoniac

Morgan Jerkins: Oooh the gum chewer is a manager and thin-skinned. This is a pretty difficult combination. No one has probably confronted the gum chewer because of her high position.

Walt Hickey: I think the letter writer should quit her job. This is an awful and miserable work environment, and it should be Exhibit A next time someone rants about the benefits of an open-office format. This person should start a foundation, no, a political movement working to take down the Open Office Floor Plan Industrial Complex. There are thousands of us waiting for the call.

Morgan: LOL. Well, I think that’s a bit radical. I wonder if it’s possible for the person to use earplugs to block out the sound or replace it with music.

Walt: I think the retaliation must be far greater. Earbuds are a genius idea. She should buy earbuds and listen to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat. But! The earbuds must be the mediocre kind, the kind that you can totally hear what’s going on from the outside of them. Perhaps that puts too much aggressive in “passive-aggressive,” though.

Morgan: Yeah, it can’t be the noise-cancelling ones.

Walt: Still, it sounds like this is a thing that other folks have caught on to. Should she reach out?

Morgan: Yes. She needs to have some allies in this. But if the letter writer talks to her co-workers about it, make sure it’s when they are out at lunch — someplace away from the office building. She has to be strategic.

Walt: So you would foment a revolution?

Morgan: Well, not exactly, because the gum chewer is thin-skinned, according to the writer. I would recommend the letter writer talk to her colleagues to see if anyone has ever talked to the gum chewer about her habit. If yes, then buy those earplugs ASAP. If not, then she can establish a point person to talk to her, but only one person, since the gum chewer is not thick-skinned. I can’t stress that enough.

Walt: Still, this seems like the kind of thing that human resources was explicitly created to address. While it seems like a small thing, this is influencing the quality of the work environment for dozens of company employees. And since we can gather that there’s a power imbalance between the letter writer and the gum chewer, going to HR could be the only way she has to get a neutral third party to flag the problem.

Morgan: Oh, that’s even better, actually. Get HR involved because the letter writer cannot stir up drama that way. I am 100 percent behind that.

Walt: And if this establishment is too small to have an HR department, I think your way is the best way. I mean, headphones can do a lot of things, but when it comes to isolating yourself from the sights and smells of a performative gum chewer, they’re going to fall flat.

Morgan: It can help for a short while, but perhaps not long term.

Walt: Right. That’s why the long-term plan is my Open Office Liberation Front, which will strike at the heart of the enemy.

FiveThirtyEight commissioned a SurveyMonkey Audience poll that ran on Oct. 25, 2016, and received 1,048 responses. We presented respondents with Misophoniac’s letter and asked which is the best advice given the situation.

The options:

  1. Have a discreet conversation with human resources about it.
  2. Talk to her colleagues to see if anyone has ever talked to the gum chewer about her habit. If not, establish a point person to talk to her.
  3. Purchase headphones and listen to music.
  4. Purchase headphones and listen to music, but loud, so as to provoke an office-wide conversation about noise.
  5. None of the above.

Walt: Oh look, we had a bunch of grown-ups respond to the question

Morgan: We did. We really did. Very diplomatic ones.

Walt: Still, while “tattle to HR” was the easiest answer here, it’s encouraging to see that for those who aren’t in an office with a dedicated human resources department, it’s far from uncouth to delegate someone to have the conversation. Also, today we learned that about 15 percent of respondents are nonconfrontational to a fault and would just purchase headphones and hope for the best. And shout out to the 26 respondents who are me and would just escalate it.

Morgan: This is not what I expected at all. I expected for people to advocate for the letter writer to gather all of the employees to stage a kind of coup d’état or something along those lines. People love drama. It’s human nature, you know? But perhaps I just have less faith in humans than I would like to admit, because evidently, we have some very nice and considerate people who voted. I think because the gum chewer has a higher position in the company and she does not have thick skin, this is the best possible choice. We don’t want anyone getting fired over something like this.

Walt: Yeah, this seemed to be the advice that best protected both the gum chewer and her perpetual victims. I think one of the better features of this advice column, for what it’s worth, is the panel’s ability to flatly reject our advice. This isn’t a thing you typically see in other advice columns! Around a fifth of people thought that none of what we said was worth hearing, so there may very well be better solutions to this predicament.

And here’s a breakdown by age…


Morgan: Not surprising at all! Younger people love mess.

Walt: Oh yeah, this is wonderful. The younger someone was, the more likely they were to say to “just buy headphones,” or “pick someone to talk to them.” I’ll confess, I did not know what human resources was for quite some time, and I did not fully grasp what health insurance flex accounts were until roughly six months ago, so maybe HR has to step up and reach out to us.

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Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

Morgan Jerkins is a writer living in New York City.