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Don't Let Your Cubicle Cooties Infect the Office

Etiquette should extend to your -- and your colleagues -- desks as well.

Editor's note: If you have a pressing business-etiquette question for Miss Conduct, please send her an email.

From 250-square-foot apartments being introduced into the Los Angeles sprawl to the $40 million price tag on some of Manhattan's new

Plaza residences, everyone seems to be dealing with real-estate challenges lately. So this week, Miss Conduct contemplates the cubicle.

Good fences make good neighbors, but in a cubicular workplace, it's easy to feel like you have none. Instead, be grateful: At least you're better off than the staff of

The New York Times

, where they jam desk against desk with no real boundaries at all. (But to all my friends at

NYT

, at least desk equals paycheck, right?)

Here then, is Miss Conduct's Five Senses Guide to never crossing your cubicon.

1. Taste

Miss Conduct sincerely hopes that mastering your teensy domain doesn't mean tasting it.

But pursuant to the oral sense, obviously, eating fragrant foods at your desk can be a distraction for your colleagues -- so she's sure that you confine the popcorn, pizza and hauntingly garlic-laden foods to the lunch room.

Otherwise, you might get cubiculitis, where you appear to think the whole office is your personal space. And this can lead to a cubiculectomy, in which your cubicle is taken away and you're left out on the street.

2. Touch

Hands on anything at the office besides your keyboard is usually a no-no; so too the idea of touching your colleagues' cubicle items.

That includes borrowing them. If you absolutely must swipe your neighbor's scissors (again), leave a note begging forgiveness and offering thanks. Then return it promptly, leaving the note as evidence of the loan. Arguing with an angry colleague over sharp objects can mean a bad day for the whole office, not to mention emergency room personnel.

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3. Smell

Either you're a grown-up and you already know many of the things that make you smell bad (a list that must be updated with exasperating frequency as we age), or you think you're still a kid and you don't realize you stink.

Miss Conduct hates to be the one to break it to you, but it's time to investigate your olfactory presentation. Miss Conduct assumes you already shower, brush, floss and apply a nonaluminum deodorant daily (and of course you keep a toothbrush, mouthwash and gum in your desk), so now start with a list of all the foods and beverages that make anyone in your family stinky.

If your family is too smelly to approach for inquiry, try to avoid the following: broccoli, cauliflower, beans and peas, onions, garlic, soy products (remember, soy is a bean), ground nuts (such as peanuts) and lactose-containing dairy products. Wean yourself off all of them, then re-introduce them one at a time to determine your sensitivities.

Smell may be the first sense to adapt to unpleasant phenomena, but having colleagues who dread coming near you just won't do. If you have to, think of it this way -- corporate skullduggery is impossible if your colleagues can tell what room you've been in long after you leave it.

Therefore, keep the aftershave and perfume to a bare minimum. Someone should only be able to detect your presence if they get close enough to hug you, which shouldn't be happening in the office anyway.

4. Sight

Like wearing ties similar to the boss' favorite, the goal in visual presentation of your wee cubby is not to stick out, save in your ability to effortlessly conform to the company culture.

Yes, it's a drag and Miss Conduct loves R. Crumb drawings too, but the office is for meeting your career goals, not getting high-fives from fellow fans of Mr. Natural. Like Coco Chanel, who always removed one accessory before she walked out the door, when you contemplate your cubicular decor, put up a bit less visual material than the best-accepted member of your office does, then take a few more things down.

Simple is elegant -- even if you're showcasing a snapshot of your kids. In most offices, a couple of items that work as conversation-starters or mental health breaks is good; if you can't stand so little decor, it's time to examine why you want to advertise everything about yourself to everyone who walks past.

On the other hand, if things in your cubicle have gotten so bad you can't stop looking up to daydream, then put up one of those awful, sentimental kitten posters. If anything can keep your eyes from wandering, that will. And don't bring darts. OK -- maybe just one, for its forehead.

5. Sound

Again, blend in and harmonize. If you work in a bullpen, it'll mean speaking just shy of a shout.

But remember, if you keep your voice down just a bit below a bellow, you might "accidentally" find out when the boss is taking a long weekend.

If noisy neighbors overwhelm your powers of concentration, Miss Conduct is a big fan of the experts at the

Ear Plug Super Store, where they sell all sorts of products and advice for dampening your aural surroundings and amplifying the sounds that will help you do your work.

Read more of Miss Conduct's best advice at

AskMissConduct.com. Her amanuensis, Lisa Moricoli Latham, is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, and has contibuted to The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Salon.com.