“Hell Is Other People”: The Real Problem Behind Workplace Noise

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Coworking communities are a lifeline to lonely entrepreneurs. But sooner or later background noise -- and the person making it -- can become a problem.
  • A study found that it’s not the sound itself in a workplace that distracts us, rather it’s the person making the sound
  • Background noise, in fact, can be beneficial to carrying out creative tasks
  • People might find it harder to focus in a coworking or shared workspace than in a coffee shop because they care about the background noise happening around them

Last year, The Harvard Business Review published an article titled “Why You Can Focus in a Coffee Shop but Not in Your Open Space”. One of the arguments proposed by the author, David Burkus, is that it’s not necessarily the sound itself in a workplace environment that distracts us, but rather the person that’s making it.

In fact, research quoted by Burkus in his article found that “some level of office banter in the background might actually benefit our ability to do creative tasks, provided we don’t get drawn into the conversation. Instead of total silence, the ideal work environment for creative work has a little bit of background noise.” However, because we are more likely to get drawn into conversations happening at the office, people are more likely to focus more in a noise coffee shop than in a noisy office.

The article and proposed arguments reminded me of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, in which he quotes at the end that “hell is other people”. The quote is often misinterpreted, with people believing that Sartre is encouraging us to become solipsists and to disconnect from the world. That’s hardly accurate.

There’s a reason coworking spaces are popular among remote and home workers; we are social creatures and we crave that social interaction. Sartre isn’t inviting people to crawl into a cave and avoid any social interaction, he’s simply asking us to be aware of how we are influenced and affected by the presence of others.

A blog from Philosophy and Philosophers explains what Sartre meant by ‘hell is other people’:

“The No Exit play by Sartre perfectly illustrates the difficult coexistence of people: the fact that others–and their gaze–is what alienates and locks me in a particular kind of being, which in turn deprives me of my freedom.”

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So what does this have to do with workplace background noise?

Well, if we follow Burkus’ argument that it’s not the noise itself that’s distracting, but rather the person that’s making it, then we might find some light in Sartre’s argument.

Those working from a coffee shop are rarely concerned about the people they encounter there. More often than not it’s the people that they don’t run into that often; they don’t have a relationship beyond the fact that they like the same coffee place.

In a coworking space or any workplace environment, the same cannot be said. We are concerned about those that surround us, the impressions we make on them, and how they relate to us. Philosopher Gregory Sadler argues that Sartre’s ‘hell is other people’ translates into “we are conscious of others and the effects that others have on us as human beings.”

It’s at this point where the noise and chit chat we hear behind us gets distracting and pulls us away from our projects and tasks at hand.

Burkus writes that “the right level of background noise may disrupt our normal patterns of thinking just enough to allow our imaginations to wander, without making it impossible to focus. This type of ‘distracted focus’ appears to be the optimal state for working on creative tasks.”

However, this optimal state becomes an issue when we are conscious and concerned about the noise happening around us; when we believe that it is relevant to us and affects us in some way or another.

In a shared workspace environment hell can be other people because these spaces thrive on building strong communities that support one another, therefore making it difficult for individuals to pull away from noise, conversations, and overall happenings in order to focus and get the job done. It’s only natural that you will keep an ear cocked to what your coworkers are talking about, what projects they are working on, or what their troubles are.  

Thankfully, we have headphones to prevent us from crawling into a solipsist working cave.

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