Still, there are some things that strike me — nearly a decade into my working life — that really are difficult about reporting to that cubicle every day. Besides, you know, no sunlight in the winter and having to cram all your chores, errands, and fun into a few hours between the end of work and bedtime…
1.Food scrutiny: I already know that many of you will back me up on this one, so feel free to share your horror stories in the comments. I think the mental-stimulation deprivation of the average office environment makes people overly interested in otherwise-banal things such as their office mates’ eating habits. I see no other reason why so many places I’ve worked have included several food scrutinizers.
As a smaller person, I have gotten seemingly contradictory comments from the exact same person: if I’m eating something healthy I’ll get, “Look at you, eating a salad! No wonder you’re so skinny!” and if I’m eating a cookie or chips or something I’ll get, “Another cookie? How are you skinny if you’re eating cookies all the time?” From the same person.
I don’t get this kind of analysis in any other part my life. My family doesn’t do it. My friends don’t do it. My spouse doesn’t do it. Why? Not because those thoughts never cross their mind, but because there are so many other things to discuss, do, see, and analyze. In an office, people have to resort to “YOU ARE DIFFERENT FROM ME AND THAT IS WEIRD” because what else is there to say?
2. Forced intimacy: True story: a few jobs ago, I had a coworker with whom I was close, in the sense that we not only worked on a lot of projects together, but were also fairly good friends. We got to a point where she knew what hair product I’d used that day based on how my hair looked.
There’s a reason that the “work spouse” situation is so prevalent in an office setting; sometimes you spend more sustained time with your coworkers than you do with your significant other, and it inevitably fosters close ties. And I think there’s just a general human inclination to feel a bond with someone you spend a lot of time with, regardless of whether or not there’s any affinity, or even common ground.
Unless your work friendship spills over into your “real” life, your coworker is just that. They can quit or be fired; so can you. If you work closely enough with each other, you could be in competition for projects or promotions. So this intimacy is weird. And unsettling. Speaking of which…
3. Identity Crisis: Thanks to the general time-warp qualities of being in an office (not unrelated to the above-mentioned sensory deprivation), when you’re at work, it’s hard to believe or remember that you have a full, rich life outside of work. The complete physical separation of being in an office every day, often augmented by a long commute, adds to this feeling. And if your job isn’t a perfect fit for you, like say it’s the only job you could find in a tough economy, going through the motions of something so out of your wheelhouse can be deeply confusing.
For example! My coworkers think I’m a numbers person. This is so hilariously wrong I can’t even think of an emoticon with which to express it. But hey, I work with numbers all day, and thanks to the magic of Excel, I’m able to do it without messing it up. But it really starts to mess with your head when the people you spend so much time with (see above) could be so completely wrong about you. For me, it is psychically alarming to realize that I spend such a large proportion of my day putting forth the impression that I’m something I’m not.
4.Achievement Unlocked!: An office job is kind of like an addictive iPhone game in that you have little mileposts you’re trying to get to. Every milestone you reach, after giving you a short buzz, leaves you with nothing but an inexplicable desire to reach the next one. Maybe it’s a small pay increase, a few extra days’ vacation, a fancier title, a nicer desk, or just public praise from a supervisor. Heck, depending on the condition of your office, even a nicer chair might be enough to motivate you to work harder.
The point is, these rewards are great, and it’s important that a good worker gets them, but they’re kind of distractions from the larger issue. Like most of the more-popular mobile games out there right now, there’s no clear goal, there’s no real finish line. And, even if there were a true goal, the longer you play, the farther you are from achieving it. Doesn’t Angry Birds just keep adding more levels? Has anyone ever beat that game?
And what does it say about the office “game” if you only win when you retire?