Commenting on the office dynamics of academia versus the private sector, my favorite graduate school professor said that tension amongst academic colleagues was heightened because there wasn’t as much turnover. “You’ll be sitting in a meeting and thinking about the comment your colleague made ten years ago, and that will influence how you react today – just like family.”
One of my colleagues recently compared our office to a family and suggested that we had best learn to get along with our colleagues as we do with our family – to graciously tolerate those who offend our sensibility, to accept and develop work-arounds for those that have different work patterns than our own, and forgive the slights our co-workers commit against us.
I would agree with my colleague’s recommendation – we should all try to get along – if for no other reason than to do so is in our own best interest. Fitting in is almost always as equally important as being perceived as competent. But are our co-workers our family? Or does our relationship with co-workers just mirror that of family?
In Joshua Ferris’ first novel, Then We Came to the End, about the office dynamics of a Chicago ad agency during the 2000-plus economic downturn, he writes about the response to the manager who did not share her diagnosis of cancer with her colleagues, “…she had cheated us of one of our most dearly held illusions – namely, that we were not present strictly for the money, but could also be concerned about the well-being of those around us.”
Our illusion prevents the need for us to separate from one of the most basic aspects of our humanity – the need for acceptance and belonging. We hold the illusion until we begin another job; and then, as Ferris is quoted in a back of book interview, “Stuff I had lived and died for, now mere reportage on the machinations of a far-off land.” Our old family fades from our memory. We gradually forget their names, our running jokes, and the ways they incited our anger. We become absorbed, slowly at first, into a new family with its own worries and celebrations.