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The Cubicle Cold War

September 25, 2016

If you haven’t noticed, I don’t typically blog about my job. Mostly this is because I fear my corporate overlords. Secondarily, work is boring. That is until recently, when a peculiar chain of events unfolded that both baffled and intrigued me.

First some background. I love to eat sunflower seeds. Specifically, I love Frito Lay salted sunflower seeds. I have tried eating other brands like David’s or some knock-off gas station varieties, but inevitably I always return to Frito Lay. I tend to find that the other brands are never quite as good and have a higher proportion of what I consider bad tasting seeds that have either been roasted too long or simply taste off.

So on any given work day, I will probably eat three or four packages of sunflower seeds. I have done this for years and it never seemed to be a problem. I don’t eat them when I’m listening to meetings or talking on the phone and I don’t spit the shells on the floor or anything like that. Aside from the occasional shell getting stuck in my teeth, I thought it was a pretty benign habit.

That is until, Bill, my coworker, rolled his chair across the aisle one morning and began talking.

“Um, Matt. About the sunflower seeds…” he began. “Do you think that you could stop eating them?”

“Why?” I asked genuinely perplexed.

“Well, it’s the constant spitting. I have this thing about repetitive noises and it really bothers me. I tried headphones to drown out the noise, but they didn’t help.”

I was dumbfounded. First of all, it’s not like Bill and I share a cubicle or anything. He sits approximately 9 feet away from me across the cubicle aisle and I wasn’t loogeying the shells into a spittoon, making a loud noise every time I did so. I used a paper cup that I brought slowly to my mouth and quietly spit the shells into the cup with what I thought was a relatively soft pffft. But apparently this noise bothered Bill enough for him to say something.

I do give him credit that he approached me himself and didn’t shy away from the fact that I was doing something that bothered him. If the situation was reversed, I probably would have just grumbled about his annoying habit to my other coworkers and left it alone. But to think that I was actually spitting so loudly that even playing music through headphones couldn’t drown out the noise seemed absurd.

So I tried. At least for a day or two, I stopped eating sunflower seeds. Then the more I thought about it, the less inclined I was to give up my liberty to appease what I felt was an unreasonable request. By golly, this is America and if I wanted to eat sunflower seeds, I was damn well entitled to do so.

After a few days of abstaining, I finally decided that I needed some clarification. “So Bill, is it the fact that I’m eating sunflower seeds bother you or is it just the spitting of the shells?”

“Just the spitting.” he replied.

“Okay, so if I place the shells in the cup instead of spitting them, you’d be okay with that?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

Problem solved! Or so I thought at the time. I now ate the sunflower seeds and took the empty shells out of my mouth and gingerly placed them in the cup, taking extra care not to make too much noise. I also became hyper aware of any noise that I was making in my cubicle so as not to offend Bill’s sensitive ears. Did I shut the drawer to my desk too loud? Was the sound of me opening a bottle of soda going to bother Bill? My work life now had an extra dimension of ridiculousness that began to grate on me.

Bill, for his part, did not complain when I started eating sunflower seeds again as long as I placed them in the cup instead of spitting. Apparently his bat-like hearing could tolerate the almost imperceptible sound of the shells being placed in the cup.

But maybe he was just being polite, as I could tell that my eating the sunflower seeds still seemed to secretly bother him. Mostly because he would sigh loudly every time I brought in a bag of sunflower seeds and leave his desk the minute I opened a package and stay away until I was finished.

Then one day, Bill started eating celery at his desk. Loudly and with gusto. It was a dare. The loud crunching noise created an almost palpable tension. I, however, remained calm. In an office full of loud talkers, fish eaters and constant nose blowing, the noise of someone eating celery was not overly distracting. I did however take note of his passive aggressive response.

This continued for several days. Then realizing that I was unperturbed, Bill decided to escalate. Now he brings in a shaker cup and fills it with ice and some smoothie mix and shakes the cup loudly several times a day like he was Tom Cruise bar-tending in Cocktail.

Rather than being upset or annoyed, now the sheer ridiculousness of the situation amuses me. What am I going to do? Complain to his manager that Bill is waging a war of desk noises? That I started the whole situation by spitting my sunflower seeds too loudly?

No, I will not go down that road. Eventually Bill will give up on this war. I have the patience of Job and have steeled myself to never surrender. Just like the with the Soviet Union, I will win by attrition. And then this silly war will be over and I will be victorious. In the meantime, I will continue to eat sunflower seeds and sometimes I will just happen to forget to place the shells in the cup. The soft pfft of me spitting the seeds into the cup will be my almost silent battle cry.

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