A colleague in my open-plan office is sharing her sordid personal life by way of loud telephone conversations with her lover. No one would dream of judging her, but a lot of us are rather tired of hearing about what goes on behind her bedroom door. Can you suggest a tactful way of dealing with the problem?
How could you possibly believe this woman would respond to tact? The concept does not exist for her.
Everyone who works in an open plan office knows their colleagues can overhear their conversations. This woman is an exhibitionist. Her loud telephone conversations with her lover are a form of sexual display. She suspects that she is making you feel uncomfortable and that excites her.
Exhibitionists love flaunting their sexual exploits. They love to shock. You and your colleagues need to be careful. An inappropriate response could make the problem worse. It could egg her on.
Exhibitionists are also immature. They grew up in homes where sexual issues were either hidden or treated inappropriately. They don’t feel confident with themselves or their sexuality. Their exhibitionism is a cry for recognition: ‘look how grown-up I am.’ Deep down, they feel small and insignificant. Their bravado is their way of trying to prove to themselves and others that they count for something.
Yes, it’s pitiful. But people find all sorts of strange ways to try to compensate for their inadequacies.
Obviously, this girl has completely miscalculated her impact with you and your colleagues. You don’t find her shocking. You don’t find her titillating. Instead, you find her boring.
Forget tact. That is not going to work. You need the psychological equivalent of a sledgehammer.
You could try making your boredom more obvious. Expressing a couple of loud yawns within her earshot whenever she talking about her sex life might help. This could easily backfire, however. She might see it as a challenge and become even louder and more explicit.
But there is one sure-fire way to curtail exhibitionism. Humiliation.
Have a senior member of your group, someone she respects, take her aside. It is better that your volunteer be female, preferably with a dry sense of humour. She could ask your exhibitionist if she is having difficulties in her relationship. After all, everyone knows that people who talk about it the most, do it the least. Oh, and by the way, everyone is laughing at you behind your back. They think you are desperate to prove that you’re not missing out.
If your exhibitionist is brave enough to strike up another steamy conversation with her lover after your volunteer has spoken to her, exchange knowing looks, whisper to each other, and try not to smirk. She’ll notice. After all, it’s an open plan office. It may take a few times, but eventually she’ll get the message that you all think her love life is a joke.
That should unnerve her sufficiently for her to keep all the tawdry details to herself.