Tell me if this is weird.
I work in a pretty standard office environment. There are about 15 people in my department – an open-floor space with no walls or cubicles — doing much the same work that I do. Most of us have been with the company for quite a while, 10, 15, even 20 and 30 years.
Though such long tenure (or having a job at all) is increasingly rare in the modern economy, that’s not the weird part. This, I think, might be: Most of us never talk to each other.
The lady who sits about 12 feet to my left, facing in my direction, has worked with me for about 11 years. I can’t remember the last time we spoke to each other.
Another lady sits about 20 feet behind me. Part of my job is to check her work and, if it’s correct, release it to the customer. She’ll wordlessly sidle up next to me and place her printout in my tray. I’ll take it, read it, press a few keys on my computer, and we’re done. We’ve teamed up together to successfully complete an admittedly small project, all without ever offering each other even a grunt.
The guy who sits about 15 feet over my left shoulder does the same kind of proofreading I do. Occasionally, we may have to communicate to coordinate our efforts, though we avoid it if we can. We’d rather duplicate each other’s work than allow air to pass over our larynxes, exit the voice box at the soft palette, and form into recognizable words and phrases.
I’m trying to figure out if this is awkward, unnatural, or possibly even dangerous. I think about those incidents of workplace violence where surviving witnesses say things like “he was always so quiet,” and wonder if one of my neighbors is a seething psychopath, just waiting to squeeze in a little gunplay amidst the filing deadlines.
I doubt it. Much more likely is that we’re simply jaded, bored with our jobs, marking time until the end of the day by keeping our heads down and our mouths shut.
The work we do requires that we be available at a moment’s notice to quickly edit and return pages to our clients. Sometimes we’re non-stop busy, but most of the time we’re just waiting for the next project to start. In return for parking our barely animate husks at a work station for eight hours a day, we’re allowed to use our computers to play games and explore the Internet.
I’m guessing that’s a big contributor to our inertia. Without the distractions of the web, we’d be looking for something to do. Human interaction would probably crop up as a possibility.
Instead, we stare blankly at our terminals, getting up only occasionally to shuffle about the facility in a zombie-like state.
Once away from our desks, there is much more of a temptation to reach out and talk to a fellow employee. It feels somehow peculiar to pretend the neighbor you’ve been ignoring for five hours straight doesn’t deserve at least a nod of the head when you pass them in the hall. But unless your brain rattles loose inside your skull, this still makes for a silent encounter.
Outside of the work environment, the customs are a little different. Occasionally, the whims of our respective bladders cause an unintended meeting in the restroom. I ran into the fellow proofreader I mentioned above in the men’s room a few weeks back and, despite the well-documented perils of talking to another man in the same room where urinals exist, we each felt compelled to exchange a brief greeting.
“Hey,” I said as we stood at the sink washing our hands.
“Hi,” he replied.
Each of us left it at that. We had each done the bare minimum to acknowledge the other’s existence, and yet wisely (I think) resisted the urge to engage in a homosexual tryst.
Even more awkward is to run into someone outside the building. There’s a diner about a quarter-mile down the road where individuals occasionally go to grab a bite. I once saw a co-worker waiting to order in the next line, and barely recognized her. Outside the context of our jobs, it was unsettling to realize the woman could not only type but also feed herself.
“How’s it going?” I asked, feeling like I had to say something. “Getting lunch, I see.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Got a little hungry.”
“That can happen,” I was tempted to continue but didn’t. “Once your body processes its available carbohydrates, you need to replenish these with additional sustenance. I have the same issue.”
There is some casual conversation as we sit at our computers waiting for work. A few have even developed what appear to be friendships as they discuss their kids, their illnesses, their plans for the weekend and their inevitably miserable spouses. These rarely rise above a muffled mumble and, if they do, the chatters are subject to stern glares from those who prefer silence.
As for me, there are about three or four people among the group that I’ll talk to. One is my team’s production coordinator, a man about my age that I’ve known for ten years and consider to be the close approximation of a friend. Several times a day, we’ll chat about sports or the weather, and I’ll offer up a heartfelt “here” when I hand him my finished work.
Another person I’ll talk to is the lady on my right. About four years ago, we began carpooling together, and to get that started we had to verbally agree on times, meeting places, reimbursements, etc. (This was during that brief period when formal hand-written letters had become passé and texting had yet to reach its full potential, so we just spoke).
I remember wondering how this would work, how we could sit next to each other in the front seat of a car for 20 minutes every morning and afternoon and retain the same veneer of restrained civility we exhibit in the office. I wondered if we would talk, or listen to the radio, or simply sit in silence as we commuted down the highway.
As it turned out, casual conversation came easily as we unloaded on each other about the frustrations of work and life in general. I got to know about her family (four kids and a husband), her likes (Neil Young) and dislikes (George W. Bush), her hopes (retirement) and her fears (that I drive like a maniac). We have become what I consider to be friends.
But only while we’re making that drive on the interstate. As soon as we sit down next to each other at work, the conversation stops. At most, she’ll offer a “three hours and fifteen minutes” announcement as we mentally count down to the end of the day.
I guess this is the way I prefer it. I am by nature a taciturn person myself, and don’t especially feel that just because I earn a living in the same physical space as another wage slave that we need to share our innermost thoughts. I guess we’re like the family that has lived together for years, and speak only to note that someone has died.
If it seems unnatural, I guess that’s just the way it is. Perhaps if I don’t mention it, no one else will notice.