The View From Away: Even in Canada, the break room is a battleground
It’s finally sinking in that I'm in Toronto for a real job, with a workday, coworkers and an office.
The people are nice. The office environment is friendly. I’m still getting used to showing up at the same place every day and being on time, but it is almost liberating to have a regular schedule I'm responsible for keeping.
The thing about making your own schedule is you have to have the discipline to make one. When you’re self-employed it’s a little too easy to give your only employee the day off, and by "day," I mean "week."
As nice as the change to a more formal setting has been, it is not without anxiety. Not about the work. That was always the easiest part of a job for me. Everything else that surrounds the work that brings you together is the problem: all the tangential aspects of being in a confined space with the same people every day.
In previous jobs, the frequent interpersonal encounters were particularly awkward. I never mastered the etiquette of running into the same people over and over again every day without it becoming first a chore, and eventually so tedious it made me look for excuses to be alone.
For instance, how many times can you say, “We have to stop meeting like this” when you pass somebody before it gets old? I know the answer to that one, by the way: None. Same thing with, “Would you like to dance?” when you do that do-si-do in a narrow hallway.
Using the break rooms and rest rooms (or washrooms, as they are nostalgically called in Toronto) was no picnic, either. The jobs may have changed, but the experience never did. You very soon learned who drank more than their share of the coffee, ate all the donuts, and never lifted a finger to clean up. It was not me, by the way, no matter what you heard from those liars in accounting.
Knowing about it was one thing. Bringing the culprits to justice was something very different. So the break room always seemed to be the principal battleground in a war of nerves between perpetrators and victims.
The anonymous note was one weapon of choice in this war: “Dear coffee thief: thanks for the migraine,” and “For those of you who hadn’t noticed, the large appliance under the counter is a dishwasher. You might want to think about using it.”
An all too common tactic was to choose squalor over cleaning a single utensil dirtied by someone else. I wish I had a dime for every sink I have seen that had come to resemble the field hospital after the burning of Atlanta in “Gone With The Wind,” because some office martyr got “sick and tired of cleaning up after you pigs.”
One ritual of office life that I struggled with was the daily greeting. Most people take it for granted, saying hello to the people you work with as you pass through the office to your workstation. To a socially backward person (me) it was like running the gauntlet.
A great thing about being a writer is that you spend most of your time with people you make up. They do what you want them to do, and you don’t have to engage them in small talk, never my long suit. In the States, this had not been a problem often. My coworkers usually had the common decency to be too self-involved to take a genuine interest in my life. A lot of times, nobody would even look up as I came in. Any day I got to my desk without having to talk to anybody was a good day.
I have to admit; I got a little panicky when everyone told me how friendly Canadians would be. I had visions of smiling people looking at me like those paintings of big-eyed children, open and trusting, waiting to be hurt by my inevitable inappropriate greeting. I thought I was in for it a couple of days before I started. The clerk at the convenience store near my hotel said, “How are you?” then sat there like she was waiting for an answer. If a checkout lady expected me to bond with her over a bag of chips, I was going to be in big trouble at work.
Fortunately, the trouble did not come to pass. After I stood outside the door to our offices for several minutes, psyching myself up for the all-important first entrance, it turned out to be a non-event. Everybody in the gauntlet looked up, smiled, said hello, and went back to work. They hit the exact right note for my first day. Since then, every morning has been smooth sailing and the workday remarkably free of tension.
I would call it perfect if I could get somebody to clean up the kitchen once in a while. I mean, come on, people – it takes, like, two seconds to wash out a coffee mug.