Etiquette extends from caves to cubes

For thousands of years our ancestors lived in caves — when not roaming in the wilderness to hunt for the week’s meal. Only recently, we have switched to “hunting” the weekly meal out of cubicles. Life in the cubicle is still very much part of working in IT, even in this age of wireless freedom and home offices. While I have not researched how good our ancestors were at sharing the cave, I surely have some insight into how well we share the cube.

Because of its false pretense of privacy, the cubicle is a dangerous place. In a cubicle one is isolated but not alone. What one says, does, wears or eats (and how!) impacts those unseen or unknown neighbours. For the duration of every working day, we and our co-workers breathe the same air, and for better or worse, share the sounds, smells and sights we all generate. In a culturally diverse workplace, this is no longer a trivial matter.

Many of us unfortunately choose to chew our meal in the cave (sorry, cube.) I doubt this operation is a deadline-saver or gridlock-beater. Surely, it is not a team spirit exercise or a professional image builder. The habit is a real threat to the keyboard and other peripherals, not to mention papers, and a potential embarrassment — should the phone ring or a visitor drop in.

Maybe our captive audience will silently survive the smell of cooked cabbage or fried fish, and stoically try to ignore slurps, mastication noise and grimaces. But let’s not count on the ventilation system or sound-proofing properties of cube walls as damage control devices. And we may never guess why the person in the cube “next door” took an impromptu break or why he has started avoiding us, given a choice.

The sound and tone of our voice does not go unnoticed either. Unlike the cleaning personnel, most IT staff don’t sing out loud on the job. Truth be told, four-letter words are not that uncommon. Involuntary humour also happens, like on one occasion when a male cube-dweller made a frantic and loud call to some helpdesk: “My PIN is invalid, my PIN is invalid!”

Say that quickly and you’ll understand why adjacent coworkers judged the call unserviceable by any helpdesk, and had a hard time concealing chuckles.

At other times, the mood booster is a conversation with a client or peer conducted in an upbeat, professional manner. Our high-tech caves also have less-obvious dangers we should be on the lookout for. While thankfully on a path of extinction, the mammoth CRT monitor is still a presence in enough cubicles. If your seat is placed in the emission area of monitors from adjacent cubicles, you are exposed to an unnecessary amount of daily radiation. Good cubicle manners should extend to arranging one’s workstation as to minimize this impact on others.

Ditto for the now-ubiquitous cell phone and other sound-enabled devices. One’s favourite ring tune may be someone else’s nuisance, and a source of distraction to a place where quiet is usually at a premium. We are not only heard but also seen in the “privacy” of our cube. Cutting nails, reading the newspaper for extended amounts of time or falling asleep will silently build notoriety that anyone could do without.

The neatness of the cube and what’s “on display” — during the day and after hours — also says a lot about the personality of the occupant, so why not use that to one’s advantage. While a cluttered or dirty cubicle is not an indication of the inhabitant’s professional capability or performance, most onlookers will form, consciously or not, a negative impression about that particular person, or the company in general. Few would have the guts to point it out but most may act on it.

While all sorts of technologies can be quickly implemented and adopted in the cubicle, the same isn’t true for good manners and habits. The fine art of cubicle living would certainly take a little more writing (and reading!) in order to irrevocably get past the cave age.

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Andronache is a Toronto-based application developer who works for a large IT firm. She can be reached at