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Social Q's: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries and Quagmires of Todayby Philip Galanes
Taking the “Woe” out of Co-Workers
Just Because You Sit Together Doesnt Make You Besties
My name is James. I introduce myself as James and sign my name as James. But my co-workers always refer to me as “Jimmy.” I think the nickname conveys an image of immaturity, and is inappropriate with clients and other professionals. How do I get my colleagues to change the way they refer to me?
—James, Long Island, NY
Have you thought about wearing long pants to the office, and maybe leaving that little red wagon at home?
People who christen us with nicknames, on their own steam, think theyre being “regular,” and respond poorly to statements like “Please call me by my full name.” They see their nicknaming as a hearty gesture of friendliness, and take our correction as stuck-up.
Heres what you do: Simply repeat your name (in full) as often as possible. If your boss introduces you to a new client, “This is Jimmy,” youll say, “Its James” when you shake her hand. Answer your telephone: “This is James.” Repetition is the key. That way, youre not correcting anyone or acting snooty, just reinforcing your desired result.
If that doesnt work, choose a new nickname that conveys the professionalism youre after. (People love to get in on a new nickname.) How would you feel about Spike?
Despite what your mother may have told you and your siblings, everyone has favorites—even her. I know I do. Theres full-fat chocolate ice cream; those Acne jeans I got on sale at Barneys; and my best friend, Chiccio. Theyre my top draft picks, simple as that.
Of course, there are many other things in this world that Im perfectly fond of, especially when my favorites arent readily available. Weight Watchers fudgesicles, for instance, if were out of Ben & Jerrys, the jeans I wore before the Acne jeans (if my favorites are in the laundry hamper), and the pals I call when my besties are busy or out of town. These other things are perfectly fine, just not my faves.
Like versus love: not a hard concept, right?
So keep it in mind, because this distinction is going to come in handy when we consider the conflicts that tend to arise between co-workers. The most common troubles in the workplace (or the ones that most commonly find their way to Social Qs anyway) come from the failure to distinguish between co-workers (whom we like perfectly well) and bona fide friends (whom we actually love).
Think about it: Just because we sit next to someone for eight hours a day—a person, by the way, who was assigned to sit there by our employer—does that make him or her an intimate? Of course not!
It makes them someone we should treat respectfully, but not necessarily someone with whom we should share our marital troubles—or worse, someone whose marital troubles we should take it upon ourselves to diagnose, dispensing unbidden advice as we would with family members or close friends.
I dont think your boyfriend is good enough for you, for example.
Step back! Before you weigh in on your co-workers love life, tell me this: Is she someone you actually care about, or are you just passing the time with her because your real pals are sitting in their own offices across town?
Like versus love, remember?
Its an understandable error. Were often bored at work, and were social animals at heart, so we delude ourselves occasionally into thinking that were “close” with that woman in the next cubicle. We confuse physical proximity with emotional intimacy. And sometimes, if our favorite people arent around, we can actually convince ourselves that were crazy about folks we barely like. (I cant be the only one whos wolfed down an entire box of Mallomars—mostly because they were there—only to realize that I didnt even like them, can I?)
Well, its the same with work pals. Do we really like them, or do we just like them because theyre there? And if its the latter, better to back off and not become too embroiled in their lives (or they in ours).
Because heres the thing: Work friendships are largely geographical in nature. If we didnt have adjoining cubicles, wed never know most of our co-workers. And the proof of this is once we leave the company, we rarely speak with them again. Or if we do, its strained and uncomfortable, and we wonder how we were ever so close. So try to keep this in mind—shes the friendly gal at work, not your best friend—and watch your troubles melt away.
Lets start with an easy one:
A guy that I work with—who seems very nice, but whom I dont really know—has a habit of keeping his shirt unbuttoned down to, um, there. His ample chest fluff is the first thing that greets anyone who sees him at any point during the day. How can I get him to button up?
Your company doesnt have a “manscaping” department, by any chance, does it? (Too bad.)
So, what kind of person is this Tom Selleck at the next desk over? Let me give you a clue: He seems nice, but we dont really know. Were pretty much strangers who happen to work at the same place. So why in the name of Harry Larry would we tell this fellow how to tend his garden? Are you in the habit of approaching strangers on the street to critique their wardrobes? Just because you receive a paycheck signed by the same guy doesnt make you any better acquainted.
Dont get me wrong: Its better not to be distracting at the office—in what we wear or, more precisely, what we dont wear. And shirts unbuttoned to the navel, whether on men or women (of the smooth or hirsute variety), do exactly that. Still, this man, who missed a button (or three) is none of our concern. Better to stay out of it.
My best friend at the office always underpays when we go out to lunch. At first, it was just a couple of bucks, but gradually the underpayments have increased. Last time, it was nearly $15. She usually dashes out before the meal is over, leaving me and other colleagues to pick up her slack. How can we get her to pay up?
Have you thought about banging on her cubicle wall? “Hey, cheapskate, you owe me fifteen bucks!”
Now, a “best friend at the office” can mean many things, from “blood sisters” to “the person I loathe the least.” But one thing is sure: This is a person toward whom we have some level of affection. Whats more, were dealing with a pretty cut-and-dried issue here—consistent underpayment of the lunch tab—which will not require any wading into psychological territory best left to our shrinks or those annoying trainers on The Biggest Loser.
So hop right in, but gently. Try casting the problem as an honest mistake: “I think you made a math error at lunch.” Remember to show your work. I bet she takes the point—and the problem disappears as fast as that plate of fries she ordered for the table.
Lets try another:
At fifty-four, Im the second-oldest person at the school where I work. On occasional Friday afternoons, several teachers get together for a beer at a restaurant nearby. Everybody used to be invited, but in the last couple of years, only the young people are included. I asked a couple of the organizers to let me know when they next meet. They agreed, but Ive never heard from them. The rejection makes me feel bad. Any advice?
Well, I hate to break it to you, but youre probably not going to be invited to Vanity Fairs Oscars party or Malia Obamas birthday dinner either. We cant all be invited to everything, and even though it stings, its just a part of life.
For the record, I admire your asking to be included, in the first place. Most of us wouldnt have had the guts for that. But now that youve asked, and been refused, where do you go from here?
Well, nowhere. We cant be everyones cup of tea, any more than everyone can be ours. So heres what you do: Dont ask again. For better or worse, the whippersnappers are entitled to socialize with whomever they want. These guys are not your dearest friends, who owe you more; theyre just guys who teach at the same school as you.
So how about starting a new tradition instead? Invite all your colleagues—even the youthquake splinter group—for drinks on the last Friday of every month. Youll be turning the other cheek and bolstering school morale at the same time. Now, thats a solution everyone can love, right?
Okay, last one:
I recently returned to work from maternity leave and found the office drastically changed. My co-workers are really cold to me and talk about me behind my back, especially about me and an older male co-worker, whos become a mentor to me. He and I go to lunch every once in a while, and my co-workers are suggesting that we are having sex—and worse, that hes the father of my child. This is really hurting me. I work so hard and try to be a good colleague. What should I do?
Toxic co-workers! Beware!
Its easy to be mean, and unfortunately, its breathtakingly fun on occasion, which is why we know every stupid thing that Lindsay Lohan (and her mother and her father) have ever done, but next to nothing about the electoral college, say, or the quantum law of physics.
For what its worth, gossip always says more about the people trading it than it does about its victims. And my usual advice is to put it right out of your head. But not in this case. The nasty colleagues have crossed a line, and shown themselves to be malicious. Do not engage them directly. Even a calm word could be twisted out of context and fuel even more venom. Id speak with the boss and ask for help. Speculating about the sex lives of others is never cool, and under some circumstances, can even constitute sexual harassment under the law.
Better safe than sorry: Get help!
Co-Workers and Their Nasty Habits
When You Just Cant Take It for Another Second!
You know what I mean.
The woman who sits next to me chews like a cow. I can hear the smacking of her lips no matter where I hide. Please help!
The guy who sits in front of me strokes his hair ALL DAY LONG. It is driving me crazy!
Or choose one of the following:
1. My boss whistles until I could scream;
2. My boss hums—off-key, mind you—until I want to die; or
3. My bosss perfume makes me sick to my stomach. The mere sight of the ugly lavender bottle is enough to make me gag!
Theyre the pet peeves from hell!
What can we do about them?
It doesnt matter whether we like these folks or hate them. Weve simply got to make this damned behavior stop. (Either that, or be hauled off to the nearest mental institution.)
So heres what you do. In the calmest voice possible, say, “You know, I have no right to ask, but could you stop [INSERT HIDEOUS HABIT HERE]?” Then add, with a big smile, “For some reason, its really getting under my skin!”
Its debatable, of course, whether the person sitting next to you has the right to chomp his food like a barnyard animal. But why go there? By making believe that its your problem—and by being charming about it, to boot—you will be much more effective in stopping it. You avoid defensiveness and even the prospect that theres something to be defensive about.
And in my experience: It works!
If you have to remind your colleagues a couple of times about knocking off the dastardly habit, thats okay. Just do it in the same sweet, blame-accepting way.
In the end, who cares—as long as it stops, right?
Okay, now that youve got the flavor of the exercise, let me give you one to solve on your own. Once youve come up with your solution, turn the page to take a look at mine.
When speaking English with me, a multilingual co-worker pronounces words from other languages in the full accent of the words origin. For example, “Im thinking of going to Barcelona (bar-theh-LO-na) for Christmas (instead of bar-seh-LO-na). Does her technically correct pronunciation trump the fact that I find it rather awkward?
—Debbie, New York City
Awkward? Whats French for pretentious, Debbie?
This sounds like one of those super-fancy French chocolates that are too sophisticated for my Hershey-loving palate.
It would be one thing if your co-workers native language were coloring her pronunciation. Accents are sexy; everyone knows that. But this woman seems to be giving you the “ooh-la-la” in many different tongues, as if she were auditioning to be a foreign correspondent for CNN or to do a television spot for General Mills International Coffees. (Remember them?)
Feel free to mock her behind her back. Or if its driving you absolutely crazy, tell her “Basta!” “Arrêtez!” or “Shimete yo!”—unfortunately, giving her one last chance to correct your accent while showing off hers.
© 2011 Philip galanes
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