Contributed by Rebecca Ang
Oh my God, that girl from accounting is walking straight towards me. Oh, what is her name? Is she the one on my team or is it the other brunette with the bangs? Why do they both have bangs?
Am I supposed to say hello? Look past her? Look at the floor? Do I ask her how she’s doing? What if she asks first? What if we ask each other at the same time and the awkward jinx thing happens? Neither of us will know when to say we’re doing fine. Will we have to say it at the same time?.
Or even worse, what if we say ‘how are you’ like we’re singing a round, one right after another?
“Hihowareyou?” stumbles out of my mouth.
She is already two feet past me, the wind from her pistachio green wool cardigan stinging my fragile cheek.
That was my first week at my new job. Now that I’m in my sixth week, I feel like she and I really understand each other.
Now we know how to ignore each other completely.
The office is an in-between social world, where people aren’t quite strangers but they aren’t quite friends either. It’s like having to go to a dinner party where you vaguely know four people and arbitrarily decide who you make small talk with (using the standard go-to questions–where do you work and what do you do?) and who to write off for the night. Except you have to do it every day. And there’s 30 of them and you’ve lost track of each other because all of them are named Mark or Peter and they all have the same job. And work in the same place.
I was already out of dinner party questions.
They showed me to my cubicle the morning of my first day. My cubicle. On the first day, I chuckled at the clichéd novelty of it. This 10-by-10 foot piece of midtown Manhattan floor space (I’m surprised I didn’t owe them rent) would be where the magic happened.
Soon enough, I was thinking in Excel sheets and sorting columns and auto-summing my grocery lists. I found myself developing relationships through single-sentence e-mail exchanges and phone calls made to people three cubicles away. That’s when I knew I had really gotten to know someone–I had committed their phone extension to muscle memory. This meant we were friends now, right?
Navigating around my cubicle and e-mail inbox turned out to be the easy part. The hallways at my office are a no man’s land, a common space where people are forced to interact with people they would otherwise be allowed to knock shoulders with on the subway with little apology.
The split-second social decisions we have to make as we pass each other in the halls cause me minutes of self-conscious agonizing. Is it okay to say hi to him today because I said hi to him yesterday? Did yesterday’s hello establish an ongoing series of acknowledgement or was it an accidental grunt of surprise that I had spoken to him and the hellos weren’t meant to continue? I wonder if pistachio green cardigan girl thinks about this. She seems to have it down to a science. A cold, callous science, but hey, that’s one way to keep it simple.
So how do people become friends with their co-workers? Do people become friends with their co-workers? Am I destined to live in my single person cubicle, cold and alone, losing all my social graces one failed dinner-party hello at a time? And then one day, I managed to trick someone into talking to me beyond the brisk hallway meet and greets.
How do people become friends with their co-workers? They complain about how incompetent their other co-workers are. Or how their past co-workers were. Or how their future co-workers will be.
I had found the holy grail of office gossip.
(Pick something that a whole group of people are privy to, but actually bears little impact on anyone’s work.) “Did you see how Susan totally f-ed up that report today?”
(Slip in a little bit of the but-I’ll-manage-somehow-because-I’m-a-better-person for sympathy points. Pair it with a vague can-do attitude that makes no guarantees or promises to actually getting any work done.) “It totally ruined my morning. But I’m not going to let it ruin my day. I guess we’ll just have to work with what we have and see what we can do.”
(Back up your acute observation with background evidence, historical data, and field research.) “I always thought she was an idiot. Moment I met her. Hasn’t she been doing these reports for years? Isn’t this almost the only thing she’s responsible for? It doesn’t look like she’s doing anything else all day except online shopping at Bloomie’s.”
(Add an unnecessarily mean comment about her attire for the hell of it. You’re on a roll.) “And she has no business wearing that color, not with those ankles.”
I watched the sea of nods and a dim, but adamant murmur of agreement filled the cubicle space. There was something so randomly judgmental, yet strangely satisfying about the whole thing, something so decidedly high school. Was I ready to play this game? Had I really learned all the rules yet? I hadn’t learned all the rules when I was 17, what makes me think I can learn them now?
I came home, less and less proud of what I’d done. I was one of those girls and I reveled in it. All day. Tomorrow, I would start clean. Find another way to say hello. Talk about the weather, ask about people’s families. Anything else. Throw away the goblet and search not for the elixir of life, but a common ground that didn’t involve trampling someone else on it.
I never thought I looked good in pistachio green anyway.