WWYD: The Obnoxious Coworker
Today in “WWYD,” working with someone you don’t particularly like:
I share an office with a person I find extremely obnoxious. He speaks loudly, chews loudly, invades my personal space, sneaks peeks at my monitor when I am looking at my bank balance, says things like, “Can I ask you a question?” instead of just asking a question, and is overall The Worst.
Today he asked me if he could use my iPhone charger (I keep one at my desk). I told him no, because I was using it (I was), and my boss told me that I was behaving like a Heather in saying no. WWYD? Am I obligated to share my personal belongings with him so he can continue to speak loudly on his cellphone at his desk? I should be honest and say that if it was pretty much anyone else I work with, I would have handed over the charger no problem. — A.
Many years ago, I worked with a guy named Carl (not his real name). Carl was hired because he was very smart and good at what he did, but when it came to people skills, he had a lot to learn. Carl also spoke loudly and didn’t understand boundaries. He was awkward, and interrupted conversations. He would help himself to our lunches without asking. We had a radio that played music in the office (there were conference rooms if you needed to make phone calls or hold meetings), but when Carl started working with us, he turned off the radio and insisted that he could only work if it was absolutely silent in the office. Once, when another friend and coworker invited me to go out to lunch with her to meet one of her friends who was visiting from out of town, Carl asked where we were going and invited himself along. Another time, when Carl and I left the office at the same time and found ourselves taking the same subway train, he abruptly walked away from me in the middle of a conversation we were having because he saw an open seat and wanted to sit. He then took out a book and started reading it as if I wasn’t there.
Carl was our Dwight Schrute.
Sometimes at happy hour, we would swap Carl stories to each other (Carl didn’t drink, so he never came to any of them), and the manager who hired Carl would laugh and then say, “Well, I think it would be good if we all tried to help Carl understand what he can do to get along with people better. He’s probably not aware that some of the things he does bothers people.”
He was right—it’s about setting boundaries. It seems funny that you would have to tell a person to wait until someone is finished talking before asking a question or telling someone something (“Carl, unless it’s an emergency, can you wait until we’re done talking here before saying something? It’s rude to interrupt”), or that you should ask before taking someone’s food (“Carl, if you want some of my fries, I’m happy to share but can you ask first?”—by the way, I think the “Can I ask you a question” quirk is just that person’s way of trying to be polite), but not everyone is blessed with people skills. Once you set clear, distinct boundaries, people should understand how you want to be treated. We all gently tried to set our boundaries with Carl, and although he still did things that confounded us, things improved.
Carl was our Dwight Schrute, but he was also hilarious in his own unexpected way. He was very well-read and always had fascinating fun facts that he pulled out of thin air. And most importantly, he was truly, totally smart and good at his job, which in the grand scheme of things made our jobs much easier. If I needed his help with something, I knew he would deliver. After a while, Carl bothered me a lot less than he used to.
So. You’re not obligated to share your belongings, but it also seems a little petty not to share your iPhone charger with someone when you know you would do it for anyone else in the office. We don’t have to like the people we work with, but we do have to find a way to get along with them. This is not to say that you should just “grin and bear it.” This person may not know he’s being obnoxious. Set clear boundaries, like we did with Carl. And if he knows he’s being obnoxious and doesn’t do anything about it, or continues to invade your personal space after you’ve told him that it makes you uncomfortable, well, you don’t have to pretend to be nice to him. Be all the Heather you want to be.