Tactics for Expressing Misery in the Office
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I have a perfect storm of mental and physical defects. I cannot keep my emotions off my face. I have nerve damage in my left leg, hip and mid-lower back from spinal cord decompression surgeries. Opiates don’t work.
I have had back problems since 2002. I know how to handle pain. I can work through it, but my face betrays me. Folks at work see me grimacing and feel horrible for me. When I attempt (and fail) to suppress the grimace, they feel even worse, thinking they sense how brave and honorably pitiable I am, and how much it must really hurt, since I cannot cover it up.
My job includes speaking. People do not believe that I mean what I say because my face “tells them” I am unable to produce concentrated thought due to my suffering. I am not only not taken literally, I am sometimes not even taken seriously. When I get mad because someone does not believe me, they say the pain is making me unpleasant and grumpy. In fact, it is their own disregard of my vocal utterances that upsets me.
I work at a medical clinic. I have to communicate in person. But my friends say, “I know you want to attend the monthly meeting, but no one wants you there because you make everyone feel so bad because of your pain. And they don’t really listen to you either, since they can’t stop thinking about how much you must be suffering. So just go home!”
Is this an old male’s version of the large-breasted woman not being taken seriously?
A large-breasted woman may not be typecast as a brave, sympathetic figure, but she is likely to have some experience with back pain, on top of other injustices. Although her slighting is rooted in sexism, not good intentions, I wager she feels a comparable resentment.
Your account made me think of the dolphin’s smile — that cetaceous skeletal quirk that the former “Flipper” trainer Ric O’Barry, now an anti-captivity activist, deems “nature’s greatest deception” because it creates the illusion of perpetual happiness. The mirror image of your trouble.
I can only imagine how frustrating your job is. I also understand that strangers imagining insight into your existence is the problem. In pursuit of practical advice, I shared your letter with my father, a retired bus driver and librarian with a passion for small talk, as well as severe mobility and pain issues. (When he walks, it’s typically with two canes. His progress is labored, but he’s great at spotting dropped change.)
He suggests a two-pronged confrontation. First, go even further than telling people you are managing your discomfort: Promise to alert them if your pain is such that you can’t work, or need aid. Otherwise, they are to assume you’re set. Repeat this to anyone whose solicitousness affects you negatively. And keep your end of the bargain.
Second, you might have to make people feel a little bad to get them to stop feeling bad. Here’s what my dad said: “You don’t want to be not included in stuff. People look at me walking and, I can tell, have sympathy for me. But, for me, it’s better to get up and get out and do whatever it is I want to do. Psychologically, that makes me feel better.”
Remind your co-workers they cannot make your life smaller because they think it would make them more comfortable.
Besides being shockingly rude, it’s illegal for a workplace to request that someone not attend meetings because of a disability. If you want to deliver a gut punch on top of whatever formal actions you may or may not take, tell co-workers you feel disappointed when they exclude you. People can’t stand being responsible for disappointment.
When passers-by ask if my dad needs help, he cracks that he would love a brand-new back, if they have one. While his coronation as a King of Comedy may never materialize, this demonstrates that his brain is not entirely preoccupied with his physical maneuvering. Lots of people just want to be absolved from their perceived obligation to help, and a joke lets everyone off the hook.
If all else fails, turn the tables on your co-workers. Say their reactions are distracting you — would they like a moment to collect themselves?
I work for a small start-up that’s seen its share of turmoil. Most could be attributed to our chief executive, and it’s largely manifested in the form of turnover. People do not want to work for a man they consider to be overly demanding and meanspirited. (I myself have designs on leaving.) A lot of people who I enjoyed working with and consider friends no longer work with me. I put a picture of three of them — one who was fired, two who left — on my cubicle wall.
My supervisor said “some people” have expressed concern about the picture because it gives the impression that I’m resistant to the “positive strides” the company’s culture has made in the past few months. He asked if I wouldn’t mind taking it down. Given that he has only been with the company two and a half months, I have to conclude that the “people” he referred to is the C.E.O.
I agreed to take it down because I like my supervisor. But the notion that I should be expected to take down a completely appropriate, inoffensive picture of my friends because the C.E.O. doesn’t like it feels like an abuse of power. Is this a valid concern to raise with H.R.? This is hardly the worst thing I’ve experienced in my career, but I feel like I have an obligation to stand up for myself.
“If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” they say. But how about this: If you take a stand for everything, you’ll constantly be having to stand up — annoying. Also annoying: Weaponizing décor to make a silent hostile point, and getting upset when the point is taken. Cool ex-colleagues are not a protected class. No one’s humanity has been impinged. Perhaps the picture rankled your C.E.O., but anyone could have found it odd. Direct your energy toward your goal of leaving. (Alternatively: Advance through the ranks to unseat the boss, and commission a big, beautiful mural of miscellaneous departed colleagues.) It’s hard to know whom to root for here — maybe the people unaware a former co-worker hung their photo in his or her cubicle.
Caity Weaver is a writer for the Styles section and The New York Times Magazine. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.