Up to Here

For several months, my job has gotten a little on the nutty side. It’s all good stuff, but my department is changing things around pretty drastically, and because of that, I’ve had to rely pretty heavily on my deep breathing exercises, daily walks, and a few bursts of headphone time where I listen to Spanish guitar. Or smooth jazz. And let’s not judge, please. As I explained to you in the last post, everyone has their “isms.” Smooth jazz is one of mine.

All of this recent work nuttiness reminded me again of that job I had years ago as a medical answering service operator. That was when I first started having a hard time coping with stress. One day, a coworker came by my desk with a pamphlet for a seminar called “Women and Stress in the Workplace.” The co-worker was a loud man who worked in sales, and he thought I would benefit from a day out of the office. Or possibly, everyone needed a day without me (I was supervising people by that point). I was a bit offended at the suggestion, but I had to admit he was right; I needed some help. I later married that man, but that’s another story for another time.

I don’t remember the name of that outfit that offered the day-long seminars, but we were always getting mail from them, and they advertised all kinds of seminars to tackle a variety of work-related issues — Wearing Many Hats in the Workplace (I thought briefly about signing up for that one, and showing up wearing a stack of hats), How to Get That Promotion!, How to Organize your ms-DOS disks — wait, I’m showing my age here.

Anyway, I signed up for the session for women and stress, thinking I could use a day away, and if I learned something helpful, even better. The seminar took place in a B-grade conference center in a strip mall. We’ve all been there – the flimsy, carpeted movable walls, the dingy used hotel chairs with suspicious stains on the cushions, the sweaty, frazzled receptionist/greeter in tan hose and square heels — you get the scene.

When I arrived, I made beeline for a seat on the outside edge, sort of near the front so I could participate but only if I wanted to, but in an aisle seat in case I needed to run for the exit. I took stock of the place and thought about my mom, who has bookoodles of girlfriends but has always despised organized groups of women. Since this was a group of stressed-out women, I looked around to check out the competition. Nobody stood out as particularly twitchy, and surprisingly, nobody looked particularly stressed out. Maybe it was already working!

The instructor was a pasty, meek type who made up for her lack of charisma by offering us glazed donuts. As I explained in my last segment, I can’t have idle hands, so I helped myself. What I didn’t consider while throwing down a freebie donut was that our instructor was likely drugging us to keep us there. Because we all stayed. The entire day.

The course was completely forgettable except for one key moment. The meek and pasty instructor — let’s call her Patty from here on out – asked us how we handle it when someone walks up to our desk when we’re in the middle of something and don’t have time to chit chat. I think there was some label for those people, like “Chatty Saboteurs” or something similarly ridiculous. The idea is that there are people who will approach you at work, and they don’t mean to prevent you from working, it is completely not intentional — they’re just chatty. But you get the fun job of trying to figure out how to ask them to go away without offending them.

Now, I am THE chattiest person I know, so this is a tough one for me. That said, through the years, I have figured out how to pick up on non-verbal cues so that when I sidle up to someone’s desk to say hello, when I start to sense they really can’t talk, even if they’re making eye contact at first and appearing engaged, I figure out the quickest way to wrap it up and I mosey along.

Here are the signs that someone is hinting for you to leave their desk:

  • watch-looking
  • looking at the computer screen
  • typing
  • looking down to appear to read notes
  • closing their eyes and pinching that spot at the top of the nose in between the eyes

The last one is a dead giveaway that the person you’re speaking with is busy. I know these are cues because I do them all myself. But I should think back to that seminar, because Patty didn’t suggest any of those things, possibly because she knew from experience they don’t really work. Instead, Patty said something like this:

“Now that we work in open environments, you can’t close your door and have time to get your important work done. You have so many distractions — the phone ringing, a meeting, an e-mail, and then you have the Chatty Ones. So, when a Chatty approaches your desk, and they say, ‘Hey! How’s it goin’?’, you simply need to raise your arm above your head like this:

(And she began shaking her hand, firmly, with much more conviction than she seemed to truly possess)

“…and say, ‘I am so sorry, but I am just UP TO HERE today. Let’s catch up later!'”

And that was that. She had us practice on each other, and we did it with sincerity, fired up to go back to our open environments and practice on some unsuspecting Chatty Saboteurs. It was exciting. And when I got back to the office it worked, at least to some degree. What also worked was turning in my resignation, because the stress of that particular job was simply more than a day-long seminar could cure. But I never forgot that little bit of advice.

Now here I am, years later, working at a company that I absolutely love. I believe in our product, our management, our vision, and we’re in a big growth spurt so our office is getting more and more crowded. I am chatty, as I mentioned, and I genuinely like my coworkers. Yet, as we grow, I find that more and more often, when someone approaches my desk, I want to raise my hand and announce that I’m “UP TO HERE.” Except it doesn’t work. And it’s kind of rude, right? And even if I do say it, we just end up chatting, and it’s hard to stop.

I don’t blame the people who come to chat, I blame myself for being someone that wants to chat along.

So lately I’ve been brainstorming potential solutions to my problem. Working from home isn’t an option, and I actually like being in an office. Raising a Pancho’s flag isn’t an option either, because I don’t have a Pancho’s flag. If you’re not from these parts, Pancho’s is a pretty terrible Mexican food buffet that I believe is defunct.  Once you serve yourself a heaping plate of crappy hangover Mexican food, then you can sit tight at your table, and if you want seconds, there’s a flag on a little flagpole at your table, and you raise it up, and an underpaid server will appear to give you another enchilada. It’s a pretty amazing idea. I kind of want one just to have when I go anywhere, and see what happens when I raise it. Except if I raise it, I’m afraid people will come to me, and that’s not the goal at all.

Here’s a picture, thanks to a random stranger who was snapping photos while waiting on more flautas. (And thanks to Google image results). There is not much documentation on Pancho’s, I’m sad to say!

In lieu of a Pancho’s flag, I have decided to go with the Hot Dog Hat.

I own a ridiculous hot dog hat, which is another great story, but I don’t have time to tell it. Ask me later, please!

I decided that when I need 100% alone time, I’ll slap on this hat and tell everyone what it’s about, and that should do the trick. If it doesn’t, I’ll brainstorm another idea (a Nerf gun?), but I feel confident that my lovely coworkers will get the idea. I have even floated the idea around a few times, and the feedback has been positive.

So it’s official. I shall commence to wearing Hot Dog Hat very soon. When people approach me, I’m going to look up, raise my hands, and shrug. Here’s my first attempt. I hope to appear friendly, but not too approachable, because that’s what got me here in the first place.

I’ll keep you posted on the results!

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