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Heavy Meddle: My Co-Worker’s Bouncing Drives Me Crazy

It’s the full body equivalent of restless leg syndrome: her shoulders twitch up and down in a never-ending cycle of nervous energy. Do I have the right to ask her to stop? (joguldi/flickr)
It’s the full body equivalent of restless leg syndrome: her shoulders twitch up and down in a never-ending cycle of nervous energy. Do I have the right to ask her to stop? (joguldi/flickr)
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Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to advice@wbur.org. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

I have a co-worker who bounces all day long. It’s the full body equivalent of restless leg syndrome: her shoulders twitch up and down in a never-ending cycle of nervous energy. As you might be able to tell, I find it to be quite annoying. And since she sits directly next to me, each bounce popping in and out of my peripheral vision, I also find it to be very distracting.

I want to ask her to stop but I’m not sure that’s fair. Isn’t it her prerogative to bounce while she works, just as it’s my prerogative to cross my legs or drink a soda? I’ve considered asking to move desks — but it seems passive aggressive to go around her.

What should I do? Help!

Sincerely,
Motionless Mary

PHOTO

Dear MM,

This is one of those minor-seeming-but-actually-pretty-thorny workplace conundrums, in that:

1. Your coworker’s behavior drives you nuts, but;

2. She’s not actually doing anything that directly invades your personal space, or creates a noise or odor that demonstrably interferes with your work.

And thus it risks sounding pretty petty — and maybe even a little cruel — to say to this woman, “Is there any way you can stop twitching, because I get really distracted by the bouncing of your shoulders in my peripheral vision.” In essence, her neurotic tick has elicited what some might see as a neurotic response.

Still. This is your workplace and you have work to do. That’s not debatable. You have a right (actually, an obligation) to create a work environment in which you can work. I don’t agree that her twitch is the same as you crossing your legs or drinking a soda. It’s more like you softly slurping your soda.

This is one of those minor-seeming-but-actually-pretty-thorny workplace conundrums...

My immediate suggestion would be for you to reorient your desk in such a manner that she’s no longer in your sight line. But I’m going to assume that occurred to you already and is somehow impossible.

So you either have to muster the courage to talk to her directly, or ask to move desks. I don’t know anything about your office, or your relationship with this woman, but if it’s a relatively large office, and you really aren’t friends with this woman, it shouldn’t be that hard simply to find some other plausible pretext for moving. Chalk it up to lighting or wanting to be closer to the bathroom or good old Feng Shui.

Would this be passive-aggressive? Not exactly. In fact, your intention is to move desks without criticizing her for this tick, or getting into a conflict. That’s avoidant, not aggressive.

If you can bring yourself to do so, though, I would speak directly to her. Why? Because I suspect part of the reason you’re upset about this is precisely because you’re suppressing your feelings in deference to hers. You’re suffering in silence. And my guess is that you’re resenting her, in part, because of your own inability to speak up.

But look, MM: it’s not like you’re telling her she has terrible body odor, or an obnoxious phone manner. She simply has nervous energy that manifests itself in a way you can’t help but find distracting. She’s not trying to bug you, and you’re not trying to pick a fight. You don’t want her to feel bad about her energetic way of being in the world, you just want to be able to do your job effectively. I do believe there’s a sensitive but firm way of saying this. But you have to be clear in recognizing that this is a collaborative problem, one that has a pretty straightforward fix. (By the way, MM, I issue this advice as the son of a pretty devout leg jiggler.)

My hunch is that you’ll feel unburdened if you’re able to get all this out in the open, rather than letting it ricochet around inside you, which is what it’s doing currently.

Good luck,
Steve

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

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