The most confining places in an office can be the ones most built for motion: the elevators we ride, the hallways we walk, and the restrooms we do bowel acrobatics within, despite being millimeters away from people whose children we’ve met at an offsite family event. What these places all have in common is that the less populated, the better, and if you eat food inside any of them, then you’re definitely a serial killer.
It’s impossible for a person to resist pressing the button for an elevator they’ve just arrived at, despite the fact that you were waiting there before and obviously already did that. Nine times out of 10, it’s a reflex. That 10th time, though, this person thinks you don’t know how buttons work and that you were standing around doing button incantations instead. Just in case, be sure to give this person a withering look right before you both enter a man-size dumbwaiter together. Once inside, you might want to hit the CLOSE DOOR button a hundred times, to prove you know button pushing after all, and to get this over faster. That’s about when someone else will walk in, as you’re feverishly pressing a button meant to keep that person out. Now you’ve been caught red-handed in the crime of elevator jacking.
The dreaded metal rectangle is no less awkward in motion. We’ve all heard of an “elevator pitch,” so named for the decibel level your screams reach when someone starts talking to you inside an elevator. It’s because nothing worth hearing has ever been said inside one. Something about the possibility of being trapped in a tiny box forever seems like maybe you should conserve your words for the eventual debate about whom to eat first (the one time you should eat anything in there).
When two coworkers get into an elevator, both wearing headphones, they do a split-second scan of each other’s faces. “Please don’t make me take off my headphones,” these faces seem to say. “K-Ci and JoJo are really hitting the spot right now, and if anything, I wish I knew less about you.” But both are terrified of seeming rude, so it’s time for talking. Hopefully this exchange provides an audio buffer for the length of the ride to drown out the low hum of mutual indifference. If there isn’t a natural tapering off to the conversation by the time they get to their floor, though, the two must idle in the lobby, winding down. Right before it becomes clear that they’re headed to the same hallway and collapse into a spasm of full-body sobs.
Office hallways are like bustling roads in a disaster movie you are not the star of. Instead, you’re a human obstacle. Pre-roadkill. Someone is always speed walking behind you down a narrow hall, footsteps nearly syncing up with “Flight of the Valkyries.” Side-by-side duos barrel toward you, as the conversation they started on an elevator strains into postverbal gibberish. They might make a halfhearted gesture of getting out of the way, but most of the time you just have to give in and move over or body check one of them and claim involuntary hockey instincts.
By now, everyone has been an unwilling participant in the hallway dance. It’s when two people from opposing sides of a building swerve to avoid impact, but each keeps aiming where the other is headed, like meat magnets. Both parties smile at first and kind of lean into the dorky choreography. “Are we really doing this? Haha, okay!” But when neither makes a big move, both begin doing it for reaL Little do they know that the two people who first did this dance in the late-1800s Reconstructionist South ended up fighting to the death with crude weapons fashioned out of protractors and an abacus. Their restless office wraiths still linger in modern hallways, possessing those who don’t escape lockstep fast enough. Some say office workers will continue reliving this ancient battle until the enchantment is finally broken by true love’s kiss.
Just passing someone in a sufficiently wide hall is not without its problems, either. Once you see a coworker coming toward you, there’s a decision to make. Do you acknowledge this person now and just pretend something amazing is happening on your phone as you get closer? Do you avert your gaze until the last possible second and pretend to be surprised? Or do you start snapping your fingers rhythmically like in West Side Story? Either way, you’re going to have to try some Office Hallway Faces and feel gross about them. Here are the most common variations in descending order of friendliness:
The High School Yearbook Photo
Looks like: Head swiveled as though a photographer were dangling a plush birdie just out of frame, naive smile full of hope for the future.
Means: “This is so us, meeting like this.”
The Folksy Lawyer
Looks like: An overly familiar, shit-eating grin.
Means: “Wherever you go, there you are, but especially in this hallway, amirite?”
The Sorry Senator
Looks like: Lower lip sucked in, cheeks puffed out; a politician’s face at a press conference after getting caught sexting an intern.
Means:“I think we can all agree that this is a disappointing turn of events.”
Looks like: A smile so strained, the eyebrows above are flying away into heaven.
Means: “Didn’t expect to see you here, and I won’t expect it next time either. Expectations are for psychics and the first groundhog of spring.”
The Silent Scream
Looks like: Barely contained panic; a rookie mortician seeing his first thresher accident.
Means: “Oh no, it’s you! How can this even be? Stay in your area!”
Looks like: Blank expression, eyes dead ahead, chin raised in determination.
Means.· “I either hate you for no reason or I hate that we hooked up one time and now still have to see each other more often than a retired married couple.”
Do space aliens have office restrooms? It’s a question that has haunted scientific minds for centuries. What would these evolved beings think of us entering tiny chambers to do loud, echoey toilet business, only to emerge in a trench coat of farts, coming face-to-face with our bosses? They probably look upon us the same way that new parents view their infant children when they have dirty diapers: with sympathy. If those babies knew what was waiting in the bathrooms of their future offices, though, they’d throw even more of a shit fit. Then again, if they can see that far ahead, perhaps those babies can also see what alien bathrooms look like and let us know.
Let’s start with the noise. The relief sounds people make in public bathrooms ironically fill others with a discomfort from which they may never find release. Nobody should have to hear the shoved doors and slammed seats of someone else’s four-alarm stomach emergency–but it happens every day. Any talk of the quarterly report while lined up, urinal-side, like pigs at a trough, is punctuated by a symphony of bathroom sounds-including at least one loud beep-blorp from the toileter who forgot to mute Angry Birds. You just can’t neutralize that kind of background noise with verbal Febreze. Talking in a work bathroom when you’re not alone sounds like a less elegant Weird Al parody of conversation.
Perhaps the most awkward part of using the bathroom at work is trying to preserve anonymity If you walk past a stall and make door-slit eye contact with whoever’s inside, that person gets Medusa’d into a toilet gargoyle in both of your memories. The stakes are just that high when pants are low. Fleeing a stall without anyone seeing you feels like getting away with murder, and sometimes there’s almost as much planning involved. If an ad sales rep walks in and starts brushing his teeth just as you were about to make your getaway, you now have to stay in the stall until he’s done, suppressing all your questions about why he’s doing that. (Seriously, why? Is he planning to propose marriage during the budget review?)
The flip side, of course, is when you’re washing up, and someone you know walks in. The sight of that stall door closing is the green light that lets you know to leave, right away, or else become super familiar with your work buddy’s personal brand.
This excerpt from You Blew It! is reprinted with permission.