Friday, February 10, 2012

750 Words on Workplace Survival


I have the juiciest thing to tell you!

This is not a good conversation starter. I heard something like it three times today and invoked my new rule which is to act as though someone is calling me somewhere else. It worked two out of three times, which is a pretty good average, and the third time I pretty much ignored what was being said.

Thus begins a short lesson in workplace survival.

Years ago, a friend said this about gossip: I don't listen to gossips because I can only imagine what they say about me when I'm not around. Gossips don't stop when the subject turns to you. The person spreading manure about Joey and Frank today spreads it about you and me tomorrow.

Knowing this is a good start, but still, I'm drawn gossip like a fly to their manure. Gossip is alluring. I want to be in the know. As Toby Ziegler says in The West Wing: "It's great to be in the know. It's great to have the scoop, to have the skinny." To not gossip is an oddity.

Still, at each place I've worked, I've known at least one person who stayed out of it. One guy stayed out of everything. He was a hermit and ridiculed for it. People talked about him incessantly (me too, alas), but he could not be drawn into the discussion.

Another guy simply smiled, laughed a fake little laugh, and walked away from the discussions. And, perhaps my favorite, was a woman who stared blankly at the gossip until that person, confused and perhaps a bit shaken, walked away.

My method is to have pressing business elsewhere. Today I printed a few pages that had no business being printed just so that I could walk out of my room to the copier and stare at them as though they required deep concentration. Another time I excused myself, hand on stomach, and went into the bathroom. The third time I went into my classroom, but the person followed me. Still I tried the staring blankly thing. It's not easy. You try it. Don't nod or shake your head, don't speak. Be a void.

In my previous job I mired myself in gossip. It didn't get me anywhere but unhappy. I don't know any happy gossips. People who dwell on trouble, who look for it or work to create it are unhappy. They don't enjoy their jobs and function only on the energy of us-against-them anger. That sort of thing doesn't energize me long enough and it doesn't make the day go by any faster or more pleasantly. Still, it has taken me a long, long time to figure it out.

I don't have any good gossip for you. I don't have any bad gossip. I'm just here and, if you're bored, I'll tell you this kid in my class who hates reading but today picked up a book and after a while declared, this doesn't suck balls. What higher praise? I'd like to hear that story about your daughter's game or how your dog steals and hides your socks. Tell me about the dinner you prepared last night and the movie you saw last weekend. Don't tell me what Joey, Linda, Frank, or Sharon did unless they're here to listen too. If you don't want to say it in front of the person, don't tell me. And this goes for talk of students too.

I suppose that all of this is common sense, yet it's uncommon in the places I've worked and in me. I'm working on making it a habit to get away from gossip fast. I want it to become just as natural as my usual habit which, as always, is to write on.