Boring Banter is a Distraction at Work

July 2014 Asperger’s & NLD Career Letter

“I have been at my position in accounts payable for five years and enjoy my job,” writes Sharon. “I work in a small office, in an area with six cubicles. Recently we gained two new people and I have found it a bit hard to get used to them being here. They tend to talk a lot, about work related things but also about personal topics like clothes and makeup that I am not interested in. I feel like I am back in grade school where the other girls were talking about things I had no interest in  and I was off to the side listening in but not really a part of it. I have found the conversations quite distracting and it has been harder to concentrate on my work. How can I manage the new social dynamics?”

A certain amount of socializing is expected in the workplace. Brief chats, like the ones about clothes and makeup that Sharon describes, actually help employees to be more productive. For many people, friendly interaction with co-workers is a significant factor in their overall job satisfaction.

The best way to deal with the chatter of co-workers is to become part of the group. Sharing information about interests, hobbies, or a favorite television program is the basis for forming relationships with co-workers. Even though the content of these conversations is superficial, the connection to others is meaningful. Good relationships build trust and promote teamwork.

It is not a good strategy to ignore co-workers because you are not interested in their topics of conversation. You will probably be perceived as unfriendly, aloof, or even angry. Instead, establish yourself as a member of the group by taking an interest in others.

This does not require intense interaction. Nor does it involve conversing with every person in the company, or even every person in your department. Focus on individuals you interact with on a frequent basis. Even if you do not  know anything about what is being discussed, you can still participate.

Suppose, for example, that a colleague is discussing an up-coming shopping trip. You might ask a question: “Which store are you going to?” or “What kind of clothes are you going to buy?” Or, you could make a positive comment: “That store has a great selection of merchandise.”

These friendly exchanges are about neutral subjects and usually last for two to five minutes. Information that is very personal, controversial or polarizing should not be discussed. This includes intimate details about your family life, personal finances, or medications you are taking. Comments about politics, sex, and someone’s race, nationality or religion are also off limits. It is wise not to engage in gossip about co-workers. Excuse yourself from the discussion by saying, “I’m not comfortable talking about Jane.”

When small talk among co-workers becomes excessive, it interferes with productivity. First, determine whether this is the case. People with Asperger’s Syndrome and Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD) can be hyper-sensitive to noise, and distracted by sounds (or other sensory stimulus) that are considered a normal part of the work environment. There is no set rule for how much talking is too much. If you are uncertain, ask a colleague you know and trust for their opinion: “Lately, I’ve found the talking between Kate and Lisa to be distracting. Am I being too sensitive, or is it bothering you, too?”

You can lessen distraction by placing a white noise machine in your space. It emits a “neutral” sound, such as static or ocean waves, that masks other noises. Some individuals wear noise-cancelling headphones to block sound.

If you determine that the chatting is extreme, ask your co-workers to lower their voices. Use a friendly tone of voice. Colleagues will be annoyed if you sound angry, or like a boss. You might ask, “Would you mind lowering your voices? I’m having a hard time concentrating on my work.”

If this isn’t effective, or the thought of confronting co-workers is too anxiety-provoking, talk to your supervisor.

Disclosing your Asperger’s Syndrome or NLD is also an option if noise is preventing you from completing your work. Several of my clients have requested (and been granted) relocation to a quiet workspace as an accommodation. For more information on disclosure and accommodations, visit the Job Accommodation Network web site at https://askjan.org/. You can also request my free guide, Workplace Disclosure Strategies for Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome and Nonverbal Leaning Disorder through this Web site.