Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
Judging by the mail I get at my work advice column, a lot of us feel quite strongly about relatively minor things at work.
Some pet peeves make perfect sense, such as being annoyed with people who leave food splattered inside the microwave or thinking dark thoughts about that guy who takes all his calls on speakerphone.
But sometimes the things that most get under our skin look, well, awfully trivial.
For example, have you ever left papers on the chairs of colleagues who were away from their desks so they’d spot them when they returned? It turns out that a not-insignificant number of people find that disrespectful and infuriating. Here’s one of them, but based on the flood of comments this topic has received at Ask a Manager, this person speaks for a surprising number of others:
Having someone leave papers on my chair makes my blood boil. It feels so infantilizing to me, like pinning a note to your parents to the front of your shirt in kindergarten. The chair is personal space, where your butt goes and maybe your coat or purse is hanging there. It’s disrespectful to leave work papers there.
I wouldn’t ignore the work, but I would be salty about this every single day. I’d probably do something petty like sit on it, and continually send out wrinkled stuff.
I also hear from a ton of people who are murderously angry at the sound of colleagues chewing their lunches at nearby desks, who glower at people who adjust the office thermostat by a single degree, or who are about to lose it at “gentle reminders” in emails:
“Gentle reminders” drive me nuts. Just say what you have to say—I’m not so delicate that I need you to tip-toe up to me. At a previous job I passively-aggressively set up a rule that filtered any email with “gentle reminder” in the subject line to my junk folder. Then I could truthfully say “Sorry–didn’t see it until I checked my junk folder!”
(I should confess that I’m sympathetic to this one, as I too despise “gentle reminders.” If you want to soften your message, feel free! But announcing “I am approaching you very gingerly about this normal workplace message” is maddening to me.)
Then there are people who are offended if co-workers don’t greet them in the morning … as well as people who are annoyed about being interrupted if they are greeted. They often work in the same offices together, where they irritate the hell out of each other:
I have a coworker who confronts me if he says “hi” to me and doesn’t hear me acknowledge him back. … I normally get to work early in the morning and want to grab some coffee before I start the daily grind. My coworker arrives in the office around the same time and normally says hi when casually walking by me, or walking to the break room. The majority of the time, I say hi back. But if I’m in the midst of thinking about something or am listening to my podcast … then I sometimes don’t say hi back. This apparently is considered rude by my coworker. But I see my coworker EVERY day. Why does it bother him so much that I don’t say hi every single time?
I could go on. There’s no shortage of pet peeves at work.
But while most of these aggravations probably feel insignificant to people who aren’t provoked by them, it’s no surprise that we feel strongly about seemingly trivial things at the office. We don’t choose our co-workers, but we are forced to spend eight hours a day around one another and generally need to be reasonably polite no matter how irksome someone is. And because most of us depend on our jobs to survive, the stakes are high when it comes to whether we feel respected.
The power dynamics, too, can make it harder to see minor things as truly minor. From the outside, it might look wildly unreasonable to feel so strongly about papers left on a chair (it does to me), but imbalances of power can make inconsequential things feel as if they carry messages about how people see you and can underscore how little control you’re afforded. That’s especially true for people in support positions who might have even less control over their workflow.
Still, though, it’s got to be better for our mental health to find some chill. As humans, we’re all pretty weird, and we all do annoying things without realizing it. We’re usually happier if we can see our annoying co-workers with some empathy, ask directly if they could rein in anything that’s driving us particularly nuts, and assume obliviousness is a more likely cause than malice the majority of the time.