When I was in my early-20s, I had a part-time job helping an event planner run his business. Although my boss paid generously and was flexible about what days I worked, his social graces left something to be desired.
To put it bluntly, the guy had some serious digestive issues. And, as far as I could tell, he didn't care whom he offended with the sounds and scents emanating from his body. There was never any "Pardon me!" or "Whoops -- sorry about that!" Just a constant stream of hearty belches (and that was just the half of it, if you know what I mean).
Had I been more brazen, I'd probably have left a box of Gas-X on his chair. Instead, I found another job as quickly as I could and got out of the line of fire.
Like me, everyone has an annoying co-worker tale to tell: the guy with the Michael Bolton ringtone whose wife calls every 15 minutes, the gal who slurps her soda like a 3-year-old drinking a milkshake for the first time, the middle manager with the hygiene problem and creepy laugh who never fails to corner you at the coffee machine.
But silently festering about a clueless colleague or fleeing the coop altogether aren't your only options. Let's look at some successful tactics for nipping that office nuisance in the bud.
The 'It's Not You -- It's Me!' ApproachI get that some people are extremely comfortable at work. So much so that they often mistake their cubicle for their living room. Why else would anyone phone their sweetie using their sappiest Schmoopie voice or eat a bowl of chili with their bare hands right at their desk?
When it comes to asking the co-worker in question to stop behaving as though he or she were raised by a pack of wolves, the sheepish "I'm so worried I'm going to hurt your feelings" approach does wonders, said Julie Jansen, business consultant and author of "You Want Me to Work With Who? Eleven Keys to a Stress-Free, Satisfying, and Successful Work Life."
"You have to protect the person's self-esteem," Jansen said. The last thing you want to do is humiliate someone you may have to collaborate with on a professional project later.
An "It's really bothering me" or "It really distracts me" coupled with an apology or three will help soften the blow, she advised.
That's what Bonnie Russell, a legal publicist in Del Mar, Calif., did when an attorney she worked with took to clipping his fingernails during a routine staff meeting.
Although the clipping was driving her and everyone else in the conference room crazy, Russell sugar-coated her request:
"Afterward, I asked him if he wouldn't mind taking care of his toiletries before the meeting because the sound of the clippers was distracting."
Sending a Messenger (or Avatar)If you don't want to do the deed yourself, there's always punting to HR or voicing your complaint to a friend of the offending officemate with the hope that the friend will do the dirty work for you.
But what if you can't bring yourself to have such an awkward conversation with anyone? Or what if the person with the hideous breath or hyena-like laugh is your boss?
That's when it's time to get anonymous. Sure, you can leave an etiquette book with the pertinent sections highlighted on your co-worker's chair. But buying a book costs money. And you might get caught.
Instead, the Web site NiceCritic.com, which already has had more than 100,000 visitors since launching in July, lets you send a prewritten anonymous message to an irksome co-worker. For example, "Please limit your conversations over the cubicle walls." Or "Please make use of a napkin more frequently."
"To me, a suggestion doesn't have to be a slap in the face," site creator Erik Riesenberg said. "It can be a nice whisper."
Riesenberg, a marketing director for a book publisher in New York, described the awkward encounter that gave him the idea to create a site that delivers embarrassing news delicately, as a crusty old butler might:
"I had gone out with some co-workers for drinks," he said, "and after the third round, one co-worker came up to me and said, 'You should really trim your nose hair.'"
After the initial shock wore off and he had time to self-reflect (in a mirror, no doubt), Riesenberg had to admit it: He appreciated the friendly tip.
Neutralizing Space InvadersOf course, some co-workers are incapable of taking a hint, even if it's engraved on the anvil you drop on their head.
Just ask Aaron Mentzer, a public relations manager in Orem, Utah, who worked with a younger woman who had a problem with "excessive touching and invasion of personal space."
"I'd be sitting in my cube or at a table in the break room, and she'd walk up and rest her hand on my shoulder," Mentzer said.
Flashing his wedding band did little to remedy the problem. So Mentzer took off the kid gloves and told his co-worker to keep her hands to herself because she was making him uncomfortable.
"She apologized and explained that she relied on touch for communication a lot because her father -- who she lived with still -- was sight-impaired," Mentzer said.
Not only did Mentzer obliterate the "touching issue," he managed to do so without offending his co-worker.
So the next time you're faced with a Chatty Chester who won't let you get your work done or a TMI Trisha who revels in sharing her latest tale of dermatological woe, forget subtle. Don't even worry about hurt feelings.
"Those people you have to be more direct with," said Jansen, the business consultant. "You have to say, 'I hope you don't mind if I seem abrupt, but I have to get back to work.'"
Or "I'm not interested in seeing your skin condition. Please don't ever show it to me again."
This work is the opinion of the columnist, and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) — offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.