My good bud Raizel sent me a link today that made me laugh. Not in a “ha ha,” funny way but the bitter laugh of recognition. The kind of laugh of someone whose been through something messed up and seeing someone else go through the same thing and realizing you’re not alone. It was a question in Dear Prudence:
I work with a woman who has always been a little odd. Lately she’s started sitting in her office with the light off, except for her computer screen. I jokingly asked her why she was sitting in the dark and asked her if she was going blind. She shrugged and walked away from me. I thought she was rude and complained to a co-worker about it. The co-worker told me that this woman is indeed going blind, and the ambient darkness helps the strain on her eyes. She’s already had stuff installed on her computer to make fonts bigger, and other ADA-adaptive materials are being ordered for her. I feel horrible. Not only was I rude to her, I actually got mad because I thought she’d been rude to me—and she’d only done what anybody would do when some thoughtless idiot said something stupid to them. I went to her office to apologize, but she was gone for the day. Turns out she and I both have a few days off so I have time to figure out what to do. What can I possibly tell her that will make her think I’m not the heartless bitch I sounded like?
Here’s what Prudie said:
This calls for brief but heartfelt groveling. It should also serve as a reminder that, no matter how odd you happen to find a co-worker, jokes about blindness are never necessary (and are possibly in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act). Keep your apology brief—I’m sure she doesn’t want you to castigate yourself every time you’re in the same room together—but sincere. Tell her that what you said was rude and totally inappropriate, and you’re very sorry to have made such a clumsy joke at her expense, and you won’t ever do anything like that again in the future. While you’re at it, apologize to the other co-worker you initially complained to, saying that you never should have brought the issue up with her in the first place.
Now I agree with Prudie, but I have more to say. So, for the past couple of years, when I did work in an office, I was the “odd” one as exactly described above. Because of my vision disorder I needed darkness and ADA compliant stuff, all that was described above. What’s worse is that I mostly worked in “collaborative” open office settings so I had to run away and find dark spaces to work so I came off as rude and odd. Lots of fun. People made jokes and said flippant remarks and I just shrugged it off at work and went home and cried.
Reading this made me think of how hard working in an office can be for a lot of folks, and the jokester above, without meaning to be an asshole, was a huge one. Why? A lot of well meaning people who are just trying to “keep things light” around the office end up being a jerk because contemporary office culture likes to push being “personable” while not acknowledging that people are individuals who may have personal or physical struggles that make being “personable” less than a top priority. This may include:
- People with disabilities/chronic illness/mental illness
- Primary caretakers of children or adult family members
- People working while in school
- Closeted LGBTQ people
- People from a different race/culture/economic background than the majority office culture
and a whole bunch of other stuff I can’t think of right now.
Sometimes that offhand joke or comment that someone makes because they’re trying to “connect” with someone is actively making their day worse and making their day at work suck more for them. This may include:
- Making fun of someone for bringing their own lunch into work/takes an hour to themselves instead of “going out with the team”
- Making a snarky comment about someone who needs to excuse themselves to go to the bathroom for something/make an urgent phone call
- Making a snarky comment/joke about someone who needs a different chair/screen whatever than the rest of the team
- Complaining about someone who negotiated for flexible work hours
and a whole bunch of other stuff I can’t think of right now.
Chances are you may have said/done one of these things in passing and thought nothing of it, but there’s the likelihood you were being an asshole and didn’t even know.
So I’m not saying all this to demonize office jokesters or saying you can’t talk/ask someone about their lives to get to know them. Where being an asshole starts is when you make assumptions about someone’s life and decide to jump into the jokes without any sensitivity about what a person’s full story may be.
Sometimes, that worse-case-scenario punchline might be someone’s actual life you’ve made fun of, then you look like a jerk. When you’ve (hopefully) apologized, you’ve probably also added extra burden to the person whose day you’ve ruined to make you feel better about your blunder in the name of being a “team player.” So, avoid that.
How? I always like Prince’s advice of “Shut up, already.” By that I mean, listen more than you talk, because someone may not want to openly talk about everything they are going through but a perceptive person that listens carefully to others can often figure these things out. Empathy is important.
I know, in the fast paced world of businessing, empathy seems like a boring waste of time for Care Bear motherfuckers to worry about while real workers focus on the Bottom Line. Meanwhile, “team-building” stuff like what Game of Thrones character is your favorite and what craft beer you enjoy the most is seen as an Important Way To Get To Know Someone.
But trust me, there are a lot of people of diverse backgrounds for whom an acknowledgement of what they have to do each day and a little support to do it will mean more than all the happy hours and coffee cake breaks in the world. And it will help them do their work better. See, bottom line!
So, think about it the next time you’re tempted to make a joke that that odd person in the office with the lights out, or who has to leave early for some undisclosed reason. Are you the office “odd” person? Or the office asshole? ‘Cause, maybe you can be the person who helps transform your office culture for the better.