Office romance: Is dating a co-worker dangerous?

I've never worked in an office before but I find this woman manager attractive...

Published March 15, 2007 10:10AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am in a bit of a predicament. I work for a small, privately funded, nonprofit charity, doing rewarding work that I dearly love. The nonprofit is physically located inside a larger complex, which is overall managed by the county government. It is your standard Bush-era, public/private, tangled friggin' mess, with no one really fully in charge, but everyone trying to work together to serve those in need.

The only reason this is coming up at all is that the question of who pays for what directly impinges upon a massive crush that I have. The director of the building I work in, whom I shall call Crush, is intelligent, funny and dedicated to her work. I am a bottom-level minion in my agency. Crush seems very much like the kind of person I'd like to spend some time with, get to know and see what develops. The people I've consulted about this are very mixed in their views about the wisdom of asking Crush out on a date. Even though we work for entirely separate organizations, and don't work directly with each other, my co-worker confidantes think that the intertwined nature of the business we are in makes Crush and I co-worker enough to rule out dating. I, however, am not deterred by the unwise.

So where do you think the line of danger lies? I don't want to sow discord and cause awkwardness at work, but dammit she's so cool! I have held down many an eccentric job -- river guide, bike geek, yoga teacher, etc. -- but never an office-type job before, and I suspect that office people have an unnecessarily restrictive code of romance. But then again, I am blinded by the Crush, and hardly an objective judge.

River Guide Trying to See Around the Bend

Dear River Guide,

The "office" is a diabolical laboratory of the human soul in which the mind is extracted from the body and used as a discrete computing cell in a vast engine of commerce. In the course of adaptation, the human personality is subjected to unholy stresses similar to those experienced by apes in a cage. So it would be no surprise if your decision to date this woman higher up in the office hierarchy causes extreme and disturbing reactions in the primates around you.

Those reactions will no doubt seem shocking at first. But once you begin to understand the underlying unwritten rules by which the primate family survives the office gulag, it will begin to make sense.

First, consider the exact methods by which the mind is extracted from the body for use in the larger machine -- mainly through sensory deprivation and restraints on physical movement. Note the lack of any outside sounds familiar from nature, and the way that people are rendered as little more than heads with hands behind their desks and their cubicle walls. Their torsos, hips, legs and feet, essential to survival in the wild, are hidden, conveying to the unconscious a message of amputation and immobility, tending to extinguish any thought of flight for freedom.

Thus alienated from their bodies and hopeless of escape, office workers compensate with outsize fantasy lives. These fantasies involve not only elaborate celebrity mythologies but unconscious wishes and dreams about their own co-workers as well. They assign family and community roles to each other, over-mapping the arid landscape of the office with something psychically richer. Also, living as they do like slaves separated from family, office workers erect feeble simulacra of their primary relationships in the form of family altars -- photographs and cards depicting children, pets and aunts.

Deprived of primary self-worth and value, unable to see the fruits of their labor having any demonstrable effect on the world, office workers also devise elaborate hobby lives that insinuate themselves into the building in the form of totem objects. Baffling in their senselessness, inducing aesthetic disgust comparable to a sudden encounter with the odor of death, neither utilitarian nor beautiful but existing solely to vex the mind and the senses, these objects nonetheless line cubicle walls and decorate neutral windowsills in the abject corridors of boredom so numerous in the modern office. But beware voicing your impressions of these objects! They embody powerful psychic impulses! They represent their owners' struggles for survival of the self! They will be defended to alarming degrees!

This will all of course seem quite crazy to you at first. But you will get used to it.

As to your romantic interest: Not only will office workers regard your private relationship to one of them as a matter of concern to the welfare of the office as a whole, but, conversely, matters of genuine concern to the operation of the office will be met with a baffling lack of apparent rationality and focus. For instance, a problem may arise with a ready solution -- fix the copier, order more coffee -- but various rituals must first be performed. Blame must be assigned. If the office culture is a fairly happy one, the blame will be assigned to some external entity -- the guy who delivers the coffee or the company that made the copier. If not, if there is discord in the ranks, this will be seen as an opportunity to assign blame to whoever is playing the role of scapegoat for the collective unhappiness of the group. Then, after the ritual assigning of blame, someone with low status must be located to perform the actual work of fixing the problem. This seems to be true whether the problem is with the copier or with more complicated matters, such as the financial health of the organization.

In short, survival in the office depends less on competence than on status. Knowing this, office workers spend more time establishing and maintaining rank than actually solving problems or producing goods and services. Having not worked in an office before, you may find this odd. But then, you have not yet seen the pure horror that erupts when famines and predators ravage the herd. It is always the low-ranking members who are banished for the sake of group survival. Having seen this firsthand, office workers intent on survival learn to maintain and advance their own rank before tending to the organization's purported "mission."

So, anyway, thusly armed with a primer in the behavior of primates in the office environment, I hope you charge ahead and see what happens.

Your co-workers evince concern about your dating this woman because they fear a potential breach of the hierarchy -- and the hierarchy is vital to the survival of the group, and is to be protected at all costs. And there will always be those in the office whose desire is for control pure and simple, for whom any individual action based not on obeisance to the hierarchy but in individual impulse -- i.e., you simply find this woman interesting and attractive -- will be seen as a threat and will be fiercely opposed.

But I think it will prove an interesting experiment. You never know what office primates will do when they get a little anxious about their place in the hierarchy or the food supply. You may be ostracized, or you may find yourself in the corner office.

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