Cubicles even make people behave badly. Researchers at Cornell studied 229 employees at eight firms and found that those in cubicles were more prone than those in open-plan offices to have long, loud conversations—sometimes unrelated to work—with colleagues or on the phone. The reason seems to be that cubicles mask the social cues such as facial expressions and body language that influence social interactions. They thus make it easier to eat a smelly lunch or guffaw on the phone, oblivious to the reactions of those nearby. Those missing cues also interfere with other elements of good etiquette, such as not startling people or interrupting them when they are busy.
So partial privacy is in some ways worse than none at all. Conversations in cubicles are widely audible, but it is impossible to know who is listening, and humans, who made it through prehistory by keeping an ear out for predators, like to know where sounds are coming from. In a cubicle farm the origins of a sound—a chatting colleague, a ringing phone or a tapping keyboard—are hard to decipher. People try to adjust to the unsatisfactory combination of public and private: some say “knock knock” when approaching a cubicle; signs and headphones are used to signal “do not disturb”. Workers, the Cornell study suggested, like closed offices best of all. But open-plan offices are preferred to cubicles.
Why, then, are cubicle farms still being built? Perhaps because privacy is so valued that office planners opt for the illusion of it, rather than the undisguised reality of communal space. And a cubicle can be personalised: how about wallpaper, a rug, fairy lights or a chandelier? Some cube-dwellers hang curtains at the entrance, and it is possible to buy a door. One website shows how to make a fake window. It is all reminiscent of laboratory mice building nests in the most unpropitious surroundings.