my new coworker wants to forbid music in the office

A reader writes:

I work for a small business and we recently hired a new worker at my office. One of my usual coworkers just began maternity leave and won’t be back for 6-8 weeks, so we hired this new person as a temporary worker to pick up the slack in the meantime. If business were to pick up in the next couple of months, we might ask her to stay on indefinitely.

Three of us (me, a regular coworker, and this new coworker) work in a big panopticon-style room, and sound travels really well. I usually listen to music as quietly as possible at my desk, and my other colleague does the same. However, this new worker claims to have extremely sensitive hearing and has asked us not to listen to music anymore in the office, even at exceptionally low volumes. Not being able to listen to music really makes the day drag for me.

They say a good compromise leaves everyone unhappy, and I already listen to music so quietly I have to strain to hear it. She, on the other hand, isn’t compromising at all. Our boss doesn’t like us using headphones, and they’d be uncomfortable to wear all day anyway. Am I out of luck here? I want to be considerate, and there’s a chance this will be a long-term coworker of mine so I’d like to keep things amicable. But I’ve been listening to music at this job for 7 years without a single complaint until now, and I’d rather not give up this daily pleasure if I don’t have to.

Generally, I think that your right to make noise is trumped by someone else’s ability to concentrate. But this situation is a little different, because your new coworker is coming into an existing culture that everyone else is happy with and trying to change it – and she’s also proved not to be open to compromise on the issue. I’d be annoyed too. (And it takes a special sort of gumption to come in as a temp and ask the existing staff to alter their habits.)

You could try nicely pointing this out, by saying something like, “I’m sorry, you’ve come into an office that likes music and it’s a part of our work habits here. But I’ll try to keep it down!” And then, really do try to keep it down. Which doesn’t mean off, but does mean low.

You might also make a point of being warm and welcoming to this new coworker in other ways, both in order to minimize the changes of this coming across as flat-out dismissive and because people often end up less annoyed by the habits of people they genuinely like.

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