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The office Chatty Cathy is driving me crazy

The question

I have the unfortunate luck of working in close proximity to a colleague who insists on processing every last thought aloud. Not verbally quick, she dwells on each topic for what seems like ages, agonizing over every last detail, while working. There are no desks farther away I can move to. I've tried using the old iPod sound-blocking technique, but can't seem to turn it up loud enough to drown out her blaring voice, which is constantly directed at no one in particular. We've tried making jokes about her "having another conversation with herself" etc., but she laughs it off and continues, ad nauseam. She's an older, single, never-married, no-kids type who openly deals with depression and lives alone with her cat. You can likely understand our reluctance to tell her off. We don't want to upset her, but morale on our team is waning fast with this unending selfish nuisance.

The answer

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There are a few things I, a work-from-home type, miss about working in an office.

Free office supplies, for one. An IT department, for another. I have to take care of all my own computer problems, it's a bore.

One thing I do not miss, though, about go-to-office work is blathering, self-involved colleagues, droning on and on in meetings, the sound of their own voices as beautiful to them as the most enchanting, operatic aria. Me feeling like my life force is slowly being sucked up through the vents in the ceiling …

Anyway, on to your problem. Conventional wisdom dictates the way to handle overly chatty colleagues is 1) politely cut them off and tell them you have to work; 2) wait for a "laugh line," then exit like "Ha-ha-ha, hey I gotta go" (the thinking here is it's never impolite to end a conversation with a laugh); 3) feign preoccupation with work; 4) say "Oops I forgot to" do something, then exit; 5) as a last resort, complain to a supervisor.

But this is no garden-variety Chatty Cathy here. This is someone externalizing her internal monologue, perhaps without even being fully aware she's doing it, and unless I've read you wrong, it sounds like she will talk even when no one's listening.

Maybe even when no one's there.

That's not just chatty - that's a compulsion. And you've hinted at psychiatric issues, so tread carefully.

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You say you all are "reluctant" to approach her, and I understand why. But I think you should do it anyway, gently, at least as a first step. The time for jokes and hints has clearly passed.

Take her aside, maybe even take her out for a drink, and explain to her politely and compassionately that a) although she may not be aware of it, she is actually speaking her thoughts aloud; b) it's very distracting for others, would she please keep her thoughts to herself during the work day?

Something to that effect. Sure, she may be offended and get upset. But if things have become as dire as you imply, someone has to do something. It's called "noise pollution," and you have a right to a working environment free of it.

Anyway, what's she going to do, throw her cat at you?

If this still doesn't work (as I suspect it won't: cases of compulsive behaviour - whether it be drugs, sex "addiction" or yakoholism - can be difficult to deal with), then, indeed, I would go to your boss.

Someone whose behaviour is bringing down morale in the office and making it hard for everyone to concentrate on work? That's the type of thing managers want to know about.

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It's not a betrayal. It's not a backstabbing - especially if you have, as I suggest, already talked about it with her. It's simply a necessary action you need to take to solve a problem.

Now, if your boss can't or won't do anything, then the only thing I can suggest is a pair of "noise suppression" headphones.

On one discussion forum I read, a guy was telling the story of how he was wearing his while snoozing on a flight, and then woke up and took them off and a baby in the seat behind him started wailing and bawling and caterwauling.

He nudged his seat-mate and said: "God, wouldn't it be awful if that kid had been carrying on like that the whole time?"

But he could tell from his seat-mate's agonized expression the kid had been bawling the whole time, and it had been a living, breathing-canned-air hell.

So there you have it. If these headphones can cancel the noise of a bawling baby three feet away, they should work on your colleague. Get a big, show-offy pair, and encourage any other colleagues who have complained about her verbal diarrhea to do the same.

It'll be a good visual reminder for her, and perhaps your boss, that a) you're suffering, b) no one needs to hear her internal monologue - except for her.

David Eddie is the author of Chump Change and Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad. Damage Control, the book, was released in March.

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