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An image of the Magic Schoolbus.
Down the oesophagus we go.

SocietyMay 30, 2024

Help Me Hera: My coworkers’ throat-clearing is driving me nuts

An image of the Magic Schoolbus.
Down the oesophagus we go.

I think I probably have misophonia, but what can I actually do about it?

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Hi Hera,

What can I do about constant throat-clearing and other assorted noises in an open-plan office?

Truly going insane with regularity, volume and tone of the clearing. Think I have misophonia but that doesn’t help me not want to punch my workmates in the throat.

Sometimes I think about all the throat noises I will have to listen to the next day while brushing my teeth at night. 

What is the recourse for this?! All options involving actually saying something seem so aggro, but I truly feel I am going insane at times, and worried about blood pressure/heart problems long term.


a line of dice with blue dots

A lot of people would consider this a minor issue, but the eight exclamation points at the end of your letter, two mentions of insanity and your escalating desire to punch your coworkers in the throat show you’re obviously at breaking point. 

You’ll probably be disgusted to learn that while answering your letter I’m making sounds like a dying Napoleonic battle horse. I had a single glass of red wine last night, and every time I drink wine, I spend the entire next day overcome by fits of sneezing, which probably means I have some kind of allergy I’m unwilling to address. Luckily, I work from home and nobody else has to suffer. 

The ideal solution for you would also be to work from home, so you never again have to deal with the haunted music of someone else’s saliva. But obviously, not everyone has this kind of flexibility. Even if you’re not a lifeguard or nail technician, and have what amounts to an “email job”, many employers refuse to consider flexible work arrangements, one can only assume, because they’re lonely and live for the electric thrill of a shared morning tea.

It definitely sounds like you have misophonia! But knowing that doesn’t necessarily help you much. 

It’s hard to complain about anything in a shared office without incurring the wrath of Cheryl the Subscriptions Manager. There are plenty of topics it’s hard to raise, including whether employees should be able to wear perfume that makes the office smell like a Florida funeral home, or microwave fish in the break room. But these problems are easier to litigate because you’re likely to have a few coworkers as allies, who don’t appreciate their workspace smelling like a post-apocalyptic Kelly Tarlton’s. It’s also a lot easier to refrain from wearing perfume than it is to consciously control the thousands of likely involuntary swallowing and coughing noises you make every day. 

You worry that “saying something” will be perceived as “aggro” and you might be right. In a perfect world, your coworkers would make an effort to be more conscientious, especially after hearing how much it bothers you. But the reality is it’s equally likely to make them defensive and indignant. But even if you managed to get the message across, it may not solve the problem. The vast majority of repetitive noises people make are either involuntary or unconscious, and therefore extremely hard to control. In order to succeed, you’d have to run a re-education campaign and issue constant “friendly reminders” which is likely to be a pyrrhic victory, as it could turn the whole office against you. 

This is obviously a miserable situation for you to be in, and there has to be a solution that doesn’t make every work day feel like a one-way Magic Schoolbus trip down the human oesophagus. 

I think your best solution would be to talk privately with your boss and see if there’s some kind of accommodation which might be reached. This is obviously dependent on the goodwill of your employer. But your boss might be open to you working some days from home, or switching desks.

If you can’t work from home, the next best solution is noise-cancelling headphones! Or at least some kind of earbuds. Browsing the misophonia subreddits, I see there have been massive strides in noise-cancelling technology. There are earbuds designed to block out harsh and repetitive noises that also allow you to hear a ringing phone. Many people seem to suggest products called “loop earbuds” or “flare calmer”.

Other people swear by a good set of noise-cancelling headphones and a carefully curated playlist of ambient noise. I was surprised to find there is not only white noise, but pink noise and brown noise, and presumably every other colour you could possibly want. I don’t understand the subtle distinctions between each, but the people on the misophonia subreddit sure do. 

You could even listen to instrumental music. There are thousands of extremely specific ten-hour long ambient playlists with delightfully evocative titles like “12 Hours Black Screen Creaky Wooden Pirate Ship Rain Sounds in a Thunderstorm”, or my personal favourite, “You Woke Up as a Gorgeous White Cat in a Palace”. Other misophonia sufferers suggest “brainwave massage” or “rainymood” or even buying a small office fan. Perhaps an ambient playlist with the sounds of someone walking through autumn leaves might be an excellent camouflage for throat-clearing.

But perhaps there are some Spinoff members who might be able to offer solutions in the comments below!

Good luck! 

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