Coworkers

Good colleagues are all alike. Every shitty colleague is shitty in their own way.

At work, it is inevitable that certain people will rub you the wrong way. At my last job, it helped that I got along with my immediate teammates, two girls who were around my age and who balanced each other out. There was Hong, a vivacious and chatty hipster and budding photographer who avidly shared links to her favorite photography websites during our downtime, and Betty, a mellow girl with whom I shared a name and who like Hong, was also a photographer. Skill-wise, both girls overshadowed me. They were adept at Photoshop and other complicated design programs, could craft rudimentary albeit pretty web pages, and were curious about the digital world in that they could spend hours playing with blog layouts and new online services that were of little interest to me. Aside from swiftly completing most of our marketing assignments, they patiently counseled me on basic elements of Photoshop, most of which I have forgotten. I was unnecessary, to say the least, but I had interviewed well and was a college graduate (both Hong and Betty were finishing up their senior year at UCLA), which meant that I could at least be at the office eight hours a day, five days a week.

During my initial weeks there, our bosses made the kind decision to relocate us from a cubicle in the main office to a small conference room near the back entrance. It was, in a sense, our own executive suite, except that we were interns. Our desktops were set up on a long conference table and we had extra chairs upon which to leave our stuff and prop up our feet. We could enter and leave without running into a single soul, unless someone else happened to come or go at the same time. We kept the door open, but were free to play music and chat about celebrity gossip and, if time permitted, watch the latest Youtube sensation. Our interaction with the company’s more permanent employees was extremely limited, and as we were a special set of business development interns, seldom came into contact with the engineering interns who were our age but hired via a more rigid and established internship programme (spelled in the British way as our company was British). What we lacked in job security was made up for by minimal supervision, exceedingly kind (and extremely busy) bosses, and, as we soon discovered with increasing relief, our relative isolation from the company others.

My last company as a whole was large, but our department was quite small compared to the company I work for now. There were a grand total of ten or twelve people in the corporate building, most of them middle aged, half of them females. The men had more or less resigned themselves to the physical ravages of middle-age: beer bellies and thinning hair, thickened nails and sallow skin – a result of too many hours spent sitting in front of small numbers and sodium-filled microwave dinners. The woman were almost the exact opposite. I describe them from the lofty bower of youth, which I recognize (in the eyes of men, at least) begins to droop considerably after 25, but also as a cautionary tale for myself. Aged from 45-55, these women had most likely been prom queens in their teens and would carry the titles in their hearts and eyes (lord knows what they saw in the mirror) to the grave. They worked out. Tanned. Did their hair every morning with a variety of brushes and product to achieve such sheen and volume that even I felt ashamed by my limp albeit young ponytail, and shadowed their eyes and bronzed their faces with such expertise one would never assume, if one were to see them on the street, that they worked in the aerospace industry. They were petite and could pull off sky-high heels that on me, would have certainly raised eyebrows and prompted vicious rumors relating to alternate meanings of my last name. Their skirts were short as their shoes were tall, and I often found myself blushing on their behalf when I caught an eyeful of their taut, middle-aged thighs.  

With these colleagues I maintained a distant cordiality. A polite nod in the break room here, a polite if disinterested inquiry about weekend plans there.

“Oh really? Horseback riding with your in-laws? That sounds wonderful.”  Photo by Tony Hopewell

However, as love makes life interesting, so does hate. Sooner or later, intentionally or not, you begin to chip away or worse, nurture the preliminary prejudices you held against your colleagues. And you learn about yourself too and your self-damning tendency to judge a book by its cover. There is the overly chipper woman in HR you write off as false, her smile too cloying, her voice to high. She has a youngish face and stringy dishwater blond hair. She wears ill-fitting suits and clunky, scuffed heels that seem to anchor her to the ground when really, she wants to move swiftly. Or had wanted to, at one point in her life. One gets the feeling she had once been ambitious but had somehow, climbed the wrong ladder and was now stuck on a ledge from which she could only jump down. On your last day she meets with you to complete exit paperwork and there in her windowless office are photos of her younger brother whom you mistook as her son. She laughs off your mistake, a real deep laugh and shakes her head.

“I don’t have children,” she says without bitterness, “My husband and I are trying, though.” That is all she says, and that is all you need to hear. You heard somewhere she was in her mid thirties.

There is another intern from another building, a man-boy in his late twenties who befriends you and asks you to lunch. At first you think he’s funny – not the best looking guy, but nice and easy to talk to, so you accept. Big mistake. He is not only the Eternal Intern, having been at the company for over two years in the exact same position with the exact same pay, but also he is dreadfully boring and subtly egotistical. He points out commonalities you’d rather he not point out: you both live at home with your parents, drive Priuses, like to go out (though to vastly different venues), and when he asks, “What do you like to do for fun,” you say blandly, “Read. Write,” it causes him to erupt in a torrent of fervent nods and you know, you just know he is going to say, “I’m a bit of a writer myself.” And he does. Except he takes it one step further, pointing out that while it might seem unexpected that a environmental engineer such as himself should like to write, he believes in exercising his creative spirit. You deaden your eyes, hoping he can see that he’s lost you. You do not offer to read his writing, nor do you want him to read yours. 

Psychologists will say you hate him because he reminds you of you, but other less credentialed and more qualified persons will say, “What the hell Betty, stop wasting your time with that imbecile.”

And you try, but he becomes something of a shadow, always turning up when you are readying to leave – unfortunately as an intern, you have to clock in and out in his building – and because at heart, you are a kind person, you feel uncomfortable turning down his lunch invitations day after day, but also you wonder why his emotional intelligence quotient is so alarmingly low that he cannot read the disinterest in your eyes. In some cases, persistence does not pay off. In some cases, persistence repels.

What you don’t yet understand because you have yet to experience it, is that the Eternal Intern is small fry compared to certain future colleagues you will meet at your next job. The Eternal Intern was at least stationed in another building so that at least you could laugh at him with Hong and Betty and not be afraid of him overhearing. 

When you finally receive your offer letter from your next job, you run into the Eternal Intern on your last day, hands filled with gifts for your bosses and foodstuffs for coworkers whose company you actually enjoyed.

“I heard you got a new job,” he says, hands stuffed sullenly in his pockets.

“I did.”

“May I ask where?”

You tell him and he raises his eyebrows, “Nice,” he says, though his expression tells you he doesn’t think it is nice at all. “Let me know about the employee discount.”

“Sure,” you say. You turn to leave but he isn’t finished. He has dropped his sullen look and decided, almost heroically (because he is oblivious to how much you detest him), to make the best of things.

“Well hey, we should keep in touch.”

“Sure,” you say again, wondering if your current expression had somehow invited this suggestion. You make a mental note to stop smiling like a whoring idiot.

He asks for your number, you give it to him, too weak-willed to give him a fake one, and little do you know this is the first of many tests you will fail. You exchange an awkward hug, and you are not surprised to find you dislike even his smell and the feel of his shirt.

A few days later, still settling into your new job, sitting at your new desk, smiling at your new coworkers, one of whom is young, Asian and female and sits directly across from you and seems to be someone you could potentially befriend, the Eternal Intern texts you.

“Hey,” he writes, “Hope you’re liking your new job and coworkers. We should get lunch sometime, if you are free.”

You smile to yourself, thinking about what to text back when a voice interrupts your thoughts,

“What are you smiling about?” You look up. It is the young, Asian, female, innocently inquiring about your expression.

“Ah, just this guy I knew from my old job. He’s asking me how I like it here.”

“And do you?”

Your smile widens as you interpret her questioning as an invitation to friendship. And in a way, it is, but not the sort of friendship you are accustomed to or, more importantly, want. But it is only your first week or so. She has yet to show her true colors, just as you have yet to learn not to judge a book by its cover. You tell the truth: “I do. I like it here a lot.”

And you do. And you will continue to like it a lot. But at work, it is inevitable that certain people will rub you the wrong way.

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