Worst co-worker ever

Yowls, meows, spins, chews, farts, warbles, whistles, flails, dances, burps, twirls and throws food

Published July 24, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I had that long-sought-after job doing what I love, until my company collapsed a year and a half ago. Now, after a scary period of frantic searching, exhausting my savings, selling valuables, borrowing from friends, and almost losing my condo, I'm again employed. The bad news is, not only does it pay a third of what I was making, but every morning I feel like I'm walking into prison to report for a six-month sentence. Part of it is that I'm not very good at it; I have a master's degree and excelled at the highly creative work I did before, but I'm torturously bored by and easily distracted from the infinitesimal, repetitive, black-and-white tasks my current job consists of, and have been reprimanded for very stupid mistakes. So even though I hate my job, I'm terrified of losing it, and doing my best to keep my head down while continuing to look for something better.

The other part of it is the girl in the cube next to mine. She's in her early 20s and is like a female version of a Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler character. Unlike me, she's passionately into the job, and bleats incessantly about every aspect of what she's doing, 90+ percent of which is unnecessary. She bellows across the room to people instead of getting up to speak to them. If she hits a moment with nothing work-related to say, she'll babble on about what she dreamed last night, her diet, "My Little Pony" episodes, etc., ad infinitum. She wears feather boas, tutus, tiaras and Harry Potter-style cloaks, sometimes all at once — not annoying in and of itself, just part of the picture I'm painting here. She spins in her chair, complete with "Wheeeeee!"s. She does "yoga" and "ballet" in the aisle, frequently kicking or shaking the walls and knocking stuff over, always with a piercing yelp like she's shocked to death that that happened again. She croaks like a dying frog, yowls like a cat in heat, and phlegm-roars like Chewbacca at random intervals. She bursts into grotesque, warbly, histrionic parodies of opera singing. She emits, for minutes on end, shrill, spitty whistles without even the pretense of a tune. She sings little "la-la-la" type songs that sound like someone making fun of mindless singing, except that they, too, often last several minutes. She proudly announces her every burp and fart. She throws food at people. She wears candy necklaces and cracks pieces off between her molars. The wall between our cubes is half-height so I can not only hear but see her bobbing and twirling all the livelong day. My first few weeks here, I actually thought she might have high-functioning autism or something, but that's not the case -- she's just a spoiled brat whose excessive self-esteem has never been penetrated by the notion that not every sound that comes out of her is automatically music to the world's ears, her spastic, stick-limbed flailings are not the pinnacle of grace and artistry, and her farts do not smell like cupcakes and primroses.

None of the socially acceptable peer-to-peer admonitions -- "Could you please be quiet?" "I'm trying to work over here," "Please stop that" -- have the slightest effect on her; at most she'll say "OK," then a few minutes later start doing something else annoying. Because I feel my job here is so precarious, I'm hesitant to complain to management. I can't wear earplugs because I need to be able to take phone calls, which can go for 15-20 minutes with yodeling and armpit farts in the background the whole time. I might try to find allies who are also annoyed by her behavior, except most of the other people in our room (including, nay, especially, our supervisor) are socially awkward guys who seem to think she's some kind of sparkling goddess of whimsy.

So I just roll my eyes, grind my teeth and keep trying to make out tiny strings of interchangeable, irrelevant numbers through the pulsing haze of red she makes me see. Days she's absent bring the same luxurious sense of relief as the sudden end of a migraine. This job has me so dead inside, sometimes the most vivid and entertaining thought I have all day is a fantasy of her getting dragged to death with her cloak caught in a bus door or devoured by non-opera-appreciating bears. I'm generally a very tolerant, laid-back, non-aggressive person and am alarmed by the hatred into which my constant irritation has mutated.

Obviously the ultimate solution is another job that is both in line with my talents and annoying-girl-free. But with the state my erstwhile industry is in, that might take a while. In the meantime, how can I calm my thoughts and refrain from strangling her with her feather boa?



Dear ... Person with Strange Long Name ...

I had a similar experience once (not at Salon but way before; of course it goes without saying there have never been any annoying people working at Salon) and there was nothing  to do except to endure it. I know how awful this can be. My situation was not as bad as yours yet it was awful.

What is so awful is ... the lack of agency. Every understanding about how humans are to behave toward each other seems to have been suspended. It is like prison in that you have been stripped of those things that made you human. But unlike prison, there is no clear sequence of judicial events that led you here. You don't have the benefit of knowing that the reason the guards are mean to you and the other prisoners threatening is because this is prison.

This is a workplace.

You have been in other workplaces where the atmosphere was collegial and professional and it was great. Your ideal of how a workplace should be was confirmed and it was great. Why should this workplace be different? There is no apparent reason. Yet it is.

At the time I was stuffing envelopes with an overbearing and insufferable attack woman as my supervisor, I didn't have the ability to step back from my ego and see that this was some kind of bizarre test. Now I can see that it was like if you go to a Zen Monastery and things are hurled at you or whatever they do there to awaken the sense of outrage and thereby teach that the sense of outrage need not be indulged.

The key, as you suggest, is to acquire a Zen state of calm. But how?

The ego is saying, You don't know who I am. The ego is saying, You can't do that; you can't do that around me; you can't treat me like this, you can't behave that way.

This is about beliefs. Beliefs can be let go. If phenomena conflict with our beliefs, we can discard our beliefs for the moment and just regard the phenomena as separate from ourselves.

If we can replace our beliefs about what is supposed to be happening with pure acceptance of phenomena, there is hope. See if you can regard her behavior with detached interest. Watch her. When she begins her behavior, get up from your desk and observe. If she is doing cartwheels, observe. If she is making strange noises, observe. Just observe. Do not speak with her. Just watch. Note the exact qualities of what she is doing. If she speaks to you, just shrink back into yourself. There is no need to speak with her. Just observe. If you like, you might make some notes about what she is doing.

If you can get to the point where you are just observing, you have made a big step.

You must get to the point where she is like weather. Weather can be annoying but we wait for it to go away. We do not speak to the weather and ask it to calm down because we believe the weather does not hear us. She cannot hear you either. So treat her like the weather.

Treat her like "something going on over there." Treat her like the floor polisher is going or the air conditioning is off.

I know that nonhuman, mechanical conditions can make it impossible to work at times. But we can also get used to them.

Now, something moral in us reacts with revulsion against the idea of dehumanizing another. But rest assured, you are not dehumanizing her in order to commit genocide. You are just dehumanizing her so you can get on with your work.

This will pass. We will come out of this period of recession and businesses will rebound and you will find another job in which your skills are used and you are working with people who share your belief system. Even so, there will always be strange and annoying things to endure at work. This episode will give you valuable tools to use in the years ahead. If you can ignore this person, you can ignore pretty much anyone.

By Cary Tennis

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