Having lunch with a coworker is a fine way to expand upon a functional working relationship, possibly even bridging one into a full blown friendship. Inevitably, people expose more of themselves when outside the workplace, even if only on a lunch break. This can be interesting, and even exciting, to learn about the disparate backgrounds that produced these people beside whom you now find yourself sitting.
But where is the line? When does a coworker become a friend, and why is it so hard to abort those attempted friendships that go horribly awry? Most of these people are folks you never would have encountered in the outside world, let alone sit down to lunch with. What about workplace propriety mandates a relationship with people you find personally distasteful?
Exhibit A: A coworker of mine, let's call him "Neo," and I were assigned to the same project one day. While waiting for something to happen, I don't remember what (it's just work after all), we started talking about books and movies and such. We had fairly sympathetic taste, but not really similar. That is to say, we enjoyed some of the same things, but for wildly different reasons. I liked The Matrix for its sci-fi, post-apocalyptic perspective; he liked it... for the action. I enjoy Batman comics because Batman is an incredibly dark, tragic hero who literally struggles with insanity constantly; he enjoys them... for the action. You get the picture.
Regardless, we have lunch that day and talk some more. It turns out he's trying to start up a class-action lawsuit or something against our company for back pay because...blah blah blah - I drifted out of the conversation. It turns out he did a similar thing at his last job, and he watches Boondock Saints at least twice a week because he's obsessed with stories of righteous vindication and standing up for those who won't do so for themselves, he identifies with them. He's pretty sure he's bipolar, thinks smoking pot is the new black, and used to be in the Filipino armed forces.
Not to be too judgmental, but this guy puffs himself up so much he'd explode like the Hindenburg if you gave him a cigar for being so cool. Yet, now that we've "bonded" over all this, I'm his "friend." If this happened in any other setting, I would simply not call him and we would no longer be "friends". But in a work setting, I can't avoid running into him, and thus there is no easy way to send the message that I don't care to hear his voice unless it's about the latest memo or our work schedule. Blunt honesty isn't an option, even if I were capable of it, because that would be impolite and hinder our workplace relationship. Bully for me, huh?
Exhibit B: I went out to lunch just the other day with 6 or so coworkers of mine. I only know one of them moderately well, and he's actually a cool guy. Again, probably not someone I'd ever meet in the wild, but about as cool a coworker as you can reasonably hope for. He's writing a graphic novel right now too, so we brainstorm and such - how neat, right? He's not the troubling part of the story, though.
A girl, let's call her "Grace," is sitting next to me on my left. Cool guy, David (real name here, because he's so cool), resides to my right. We're at a Japanese place I've never been to and she recommends a certain dish. Even though it wasn't the one I had initially picked, I'm feeling diplomatic and adventurous so I go ahead and order her suggestion anyway. The food arrives, and, as I'm about to cut into my cutlets and slop up my curry, she waves her arms wide, throwing one between me and my plate, halting my advance. The she does something so simple, yet so brazen. Our father, who art in Heaven...thank you...bounty...and on and on; I phased out of her pious monologue at some point.
She then crossed herself and announced that we could all "go ahead" now. Saying grace at a business lunch? Keeping me from eating to do so and then allowing me to once finished? I was stunned. It doesn't upset me that she has these beliefs, but isn't this mixing of work with religion borderline unconstitutional? God will probably hear your thanks if you murmur them silently rather than actively imposing your ritual on your coworkers. This is the kind of thing you do among sympathetic friends and family, not people you work with. I came here for curry, not crosses!
Now, this isn't nearly as permanently obnoxious as the first example, but the same in principle. I started talking to Neo because we worked together, and now the repercussions of that are personally annoying me. Nor would Grace and I have been at lunch had we not been working together, and as a result of that work-related circumstance, I was personally offended. At least with Grace, I can simply not dine with her ever again, for fear of being proselytized.
Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, there are no laws against annoying coworkers. However, hope is on the horizon as more and more socially-elite and over-legislative liberals take power. Take that to heart, non-voters - politics can affect your day to day life! Until then, though? My professional recommendation is remain aloof as you study your coworkers interacting with each other. When you are reasonably sure you know who you want to interact with, do so. You know what they say about an ounce of prevention, after all.
WORLD - AN EDGE IN MY VOICE
Copyright © 2010 mattjosh
Graceful Offenses: Knowing One's Place in the Workplace
Copyright © 2010 mattjosh
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