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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

SocietyJuly 27, 2023

Help Me Hera: My coworker is shit-talking me

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

You ask whether some people are just horrible. Of course. But that isn’t necessarily what’s going on here. 

Want Hera’s help? Email your problem to helpme@thespinoff.co.nz

Dear Hera,

A new woman joined my team at work and we became great pals. We saw each other every day and were always texting. Then it got toxic and she started slagging off our other team mates. She wanted me to make a complaint about one of them but I refused. Then she went cold on me, and started ignoring me. She got in with the boss and started telling lies about me. Now work is really difficult and some people look at me funny. I know she’s still saying mean things about me.

What can I do? The manager is on her side and useless. I don’t want to quit as I love my job. Why would someone turn like that? Making new mates as a grown up is hard enough and now I’m scared to trust my judgement. Are some people just horrible?

Sincerely,

Backstabbed

a line of dice with blue dots

Dear Backstabbed,

There is a deliciously scant amount of information in your letter. I feel like someone receiving a postcard from a general in the Trojan army, determined not to mention that embarrassing business with the big wooden horse. I’m sure you just want to protect your privacy. But I have questions. 

How many people are in your department? What complaint did your coworker want you to make? What sort of lies is she telling about you? How did you discover this information, or is it just an educated hunch?

You were probably wise not to make a complaint. Unless there was a genuinely troubling issue (Carol pissing in the water cooler again) nobody likes working with a school hall monitor. But it’s impossible to deduce any meaningful information from your letter. Luckily it doesn’t matter, because there are some puzzles not worth solving, and one of them is the mystery of why your co-workers don’t like you. If you’re regularly making enemies at work, it’s probably worth doing some quiet reflection on the obvious common denominator. But if this is a new experience, I’d write it off as a statistical inevitability that’s unpleasant but ultimately doesn’t mean much. 

You ask whether some people are just horrible. Of course. There’s Pol Pot. And all those pharmaceutical magnates, bumping up the price of insulin. But that isn’t necessarily what’s going on here. 

Workplaces are complicated places, with shifting allegiances and mysterious ancient grudges. Every time you force a group of people into regular, close proximity, there are going to be natural antipathies. This is a law of nature, and applies everywhere, from blood banks to retirement homes to community productions of Oklaholma! There’s also nothing to be done about it. Unless you can afford not to work, you’re going to have to accept the fiscal inevitability of spending time with people who drive you insane. 

The second thing you have to accept is, sometimes you will be the person driving everyone else insane. 

I don’t mean to view your letter with undue suspicion. There’s nothing more depressing than being embroiled in a drama at your place of work, which you have to go to, for money. But your letter also makes me think of all the worst colleagues I’ve ever had. I’m sure, given the right circumstances, any of them could have written a similarly baffled letter. Were any of them terrible people? With the exception of one or two categorically heinous individuals, no. But I stand by my assertion they were annoying as hell. One or two were so annoying I’m actively resisting the urge to catalogue their misdeeds here, as a form of retrospective cyber-bullying. 

For all I know, you’re annoying too. I don’t know anything about you, so don’t take this personally. Everyone’s annoying, in their own unique way. But there’s a limit to how helpful this knowledge is. Would it do any good to sit Hypothetical Henry down and tell him the reason nobody wants to restock the espadrilles with him is because he has an unbearably patronising manner, poorly masked by a cloying, false modesty? You’d only end up as an adversarial character in his unpublished fantasy novel. 

Personally I don’t want to know all the ways in which I’m annoying. As far as I’m concerned, it’s none of my business. And if my coworkers want to privately discuss it among themselves, they should feel free.

Besides, the people gossiping about you at work don’t necessarily hate you. Most people have fairly mild, mutable dislikes that fluctuate depending on the day, what’s going on in their life, and whether or not you just reheated fish in the break room. I guess what I’m trying to say is that of course it’s personal, but it’s not that personal, and unless there are any major escalations, you should go, to quote my grandmother’s toilet door, placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

Work is a place where you can’t hide. When you see the same people every day, you get to know each other, often against your will. And they get to know you too. This is bad news for your coworker. In my experience, someone like this is constitutionally unable to disguise their personality for long. If they’re already making complaints and freezing people out, they’re hardly likely to rest on their laurels. Soon they’ll get bored, and direct that energy elsewhere. 

Sometimes there’s nothing better than a heart to heart, to clear the air, and get those difficult feelings out on the table. This is not one of those times. Don’t quit your job. Don’t confront your coworker. Keep your head down, mind your own business, and wait for the catastrophe of your new colleague’s personality to blow up in her face.

Want Hera’s help? Email your problem to helpme@thespinoff.co.nzRead the previous Help Me Heras here.

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