Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Gluttons for Punishment

I think it is fair to say that I have always been odd and somewhat of a glutton for punishment. As a little girl, I refused to play video games and instead spent my weekly allotted television time watching Nova. When other kids grumbled about school projects, I set weekly project deadlines for myself as the editor of the Unicorn Gazette and later, Pointe Magazine (both had a top circulation of around 10 paid subscribers-$2 got you a lifetime membership/subscription. What's surprising is not the fact that I charged, but that I got 10 of my friends to willingly pay...but I digress). I'd spend hours fiddling around with my new favorite toy, Microsoft Publisher, fixing margins, finding appropriate clip art and condensing the stories my small but dedicated staff of writers would submit. When my mom attempted to finish her degree while I was in elementary school, I'd secretly pray for nights when my grandma wouldn't be available to babysit so I could go to class with my mom. I'd bring a few sheets of unlined printer paper with me and pretend to scribble notes like everyone else around me. I remember being absolutely fascinated by the people who occupied the desks nearest to me and I couldn't wait for the day when I too could sit silently in class and absorb the wisdom of someone as ancient as the man standing before us.

In high school and college, I filled my freetime with student organizations that took great pains to schedule as many meetings as possible, often purposeless and almost always incredibly awkward. At one point during my senior year in High School, I was secretary of 3 different organizations, which meant that I not only had to attend several meetings a week, I also had to take notes. And I loved it. The posturing and petty politics surrounding the activities I was involved in were things I found incredibly engrossing.

And you'd think now that those activities (meetings, deadlines, politics and gossiping) rule my world, I'd find any excuse to escape. And you'd be wrong. I find the world of corporate America to be ridiculously and endlessly amusing and interesting to examine. I sometimes think that I chose the wrong (semi) useless Liberal Arts major and that I should've gone the psych/soc route so that when I eventually ended up right where I am now, I'd be able to accurately assess the motives behind people's actions.

I don't really attend very many meetings at work, but I do occasionally get invited to morale events, goodbye, congrats, and happy birthday parties that occur in various ill-chosen areas throughout my building. Everyone shuffles into the chosen spot, typically in groups of 2 or 3. People stand in a lopsided circle until the organizer of the event coughs up a few words regarding why we're all standing awkwardly around a table in a conference room. Whatever food that's being served (I think this might be the main reason people attend these events) is passed around the room. People chuckle awkwardly, examine their watches and make rueful glances towards the nearest exit. Small talk follows, and then people begin peeling away, offering apologies and saying they need to go to another meeting, or just disappearing sans explanation. A couple of women in my office (who I've mentioned in an earlier entry), regularly show up to events, take food and jet. It's remarkable to watch because they either a) are blissfully ignorant of the way you behave at these things or b) don't care that you're supposed to give the appearance of caring about whatever occasion the awkward little shindig they're stealing food from is meant to mark.

The thing that I don't understand is how these events have become such a part of corporate culture. No one seems to enjoy them, yet they really are de rigeur, and seemingly inescapable. The fact that a dozen or more people usually attend events that bear a striking resemblance to the clip below is a testament to the fact that I'm clearly not the only glutton for punishment in the room. It also suggests that though every company has it's own unique culture, we all clearly share some characteristics. And a love of free food.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Behavior Modification

As a student, I exhibited the sort of behavior teachers found to be extraordinary. I was quiet, hardworking, attentive and obedient. I was never late, my desk was always orderly and tidy and I worked well with others. My mother had always stressed the importance of appearances, and so though at home, I was moody and prone to sulkiness, my room a sea of half-written short stories, artfully crumpled balls of paper and stacks of library books and I often disappeared into my closet with a boombox and a flashlight so that I could listen to jazz each Sunday, in public, I was perfect.

Beginning in 2nd grade, my teachers found my model behavior to be the sort of thing they wished to foist on others. This meant that I was seated next to children with behavioral problems ranging from minor to intense. Right before parent-teacher conference, my mother would sit down and ask me if there was anything bothering me, and I would complain about the children I was forced to sit next to. Each time, my mother would return with the same explanation; the teacher wants you to rub off on them! My mother was unfailingly impressed with this, no doubt happy that her years as a single parent had yielded a wonderful result and that she was not plagued with the same issues her friends dealt with. But for my part, I was never quite satisfied. I felt that I endured enough of Margo’s teasing, poking and prodding, enough stolen pens, pencils and carefully stowed markers, and enough times of Anna’s attempts at cheating off of my spelling. Though it never seemed apparent to me, this method of pairing worked at some level, and it continued until I finished elementary school.

Swearing that I would never again find myself forced to sit next to someone as some sort of means of behavior modification, I became choosy about who I would sit near. In junior high, high school and college, I selected seating arrangements that found me surrounded by people who were similar to me and who I could depend upon to remain silent during lecture and exchange whispered but barbed words with one another.

And now, in the corporate world, I find myself transported back to elementary school; unable to control who I am seated next to and the unwilling participant of some sort of strange experiment on corporate life. For 2 months, I shared space with just one person; a quiet man who came to work at 6:30 and left at 3:30. We shared pleasantries, but by and large, we didn’t have many conversations and just went about our day. At the end of my 2nd month, a 3rd person arrived. A mixture of Dwight/Gareth and Andy from The Office with a dash of Aaron Spelling TV drama villainess thrown in, my new spacemate had chased out my first spacemate by her 3rd week in the office. Her computer seemed to not work, her internet never functioned the way it should, the sky was grey, it was too humid, there was no Diet Coke, her dogs were ill, she had a bad date…all of these were things she felt the need to share with us on a daily basis. Loudly. Without shame. She commonly held private conversations regarding personal issues ranging from divorce to her credit scores, and when my other spacemate was not in, she would routinely unplug his Ethernet cable and use it for her own machine. One morning after he was chastised because his machine, which contained necessary components for use on his team’s project, was inaccessible, our other spacemate yelled one good time at the Hellion, requested a change and never returned. Unfazed and unapologetic, Spelling villainess focused all her attention upon me. Sometimes she needed to use my phone, other times the computer itself. Not just for 10 minutes…sometimes for close to an hour. Unable to say no in the face of someone who is clearly my superior, I would concede, over and over again.

I could feel the 8 year old version of myself seizing up inside, forming verbal tirades that would remain unsaid and harboring visions of inflicting the sort of revenge on her that would make Tim/Jim (from The Office) proud. Instead, I found solace in complaining to my co-workers and family members. By the 6th time I went to them with a story that seemed to happen daily, I could see the looks in their eyes had changed from sympathetic to “You’re an adult, do something yourself.”

And that’s the tricky thing about being where I am in adulthood. On one hand, I have all the trappings of adulthood; a job, an apartment and a matching stack of bills. But because this woman is so much older than me, so much more senior in her position with the company, I feel about 9 years old inside…hoping that if I complain enough to my mom, she’ll take my worries to someone who can do something or offer an explanation.

Until I figure out the appropriate course of action, I’ll comfort myself with YouTube clips of pranks featured on The Office.

Office Space

My first job out of college was located in the newly regentrified area of my city, where wherehouses are commonly renovated and made into trendy million dollar lofts and office space for small start up companies.

The building I worked in was drafty, drab & grey, and the people I worked with matched the interior quite nicely. I worked there for close to 6 months, but it took me 3 to learn the names of the people on my team. I would shuffle up the ramp that led to the clusters of grey cubicles to my own little corner of awesome. I decorated the walls with print-outs of my alma mater's football schedule, jokes from the television show The Office, and to complete the picture of corporate awfulness, I hung a generic calendar featuring squirrels in different seasons above my desk. My computer was situated so that I faced a wall and my back was to the pathway that ran between cubicles. I was conscious of the time I spent on YouTube because I was acutely aware of the fact that anyone could see what I was doing long before I'd be able to quickly click to another screen. The four cubicles in either direction of me sat empty, and so I passed my days with my iPod headphones shoved into my ears, clicking away at the mice and keyboard from 9 until 6. Deprived of my ability to observe my co-workers and my new, corporate surroundings, I was absolutely miserable and at the end of each day, I watched this clip, reminding myself that this wasn't my career.

I changed jobs in early Spring, and with the new position came a completely new set of problems relating to my desk. I am now positioned just around the corner from the restrooms and the Kitchen, and as such, the hallway near me gets quite a bit of foot traffic. When I'm not killing my eardrums with overly loud pop music courtesy of those geniuses at Pandora, I am easily distracted by the characters that speed up and down the hallway each minute. This is problematic because I'm pretty sure I appear to never be doing any work as I am constantly peering above my computer screen at anyone who falls into my line of sight.

But occasionally, my eyes are drawn away from the computer screen and I watch (with feigned disinterest but really, an intense desire to understand the participants' motivations) the elaborate corporate dances that people perform under the harsh flourescent lighting. My nearest deskmate (bane of my existence and subject for my next blog entry), is madly in love with one of my co-workers. She struts up and down the hallways as though she is some sort of model and when she catches the eye of the object of her desire flashes him a look not unlike a woman searching for someone to take home as the lights turn on during last call at a bar. My co-worker, oblivious to her advances, smiles brightly in his naturally flirty manner, unknowingly giving her encouragement to continue her ultimately fruitless endeavors.

At the other end of the spectrum is a woman maybe 2 or so years older than me who has captured the imagination of every man she comes in contact with. She walks down the hallways usually with 2 or 3 men in tow, and they chuckle and fawn all over her as she talks. In a company with a startling lack of estrogen, the presence of a pretty girl can yield all sorts of results. I have never once seen her alone.

There is a man who wears the same paint of paint splattered pants to work everyday, and who never fails to wink at me each time he catches my eye.

There are three women of the same ethnic background who walk everywhere together and who warmly smile and laugh together, sharing conversations in their native tongue in the bathroom or while getting coffee in the breakroom. Theirs is the sort of camraderie that makes me feel lonely for my friends in college, and stands out amongst the friendships people carve out in corporate America because it seems to go a little deeper than the ones I see most of the time that are based upon "walking around a bit of carpet everyday."