Monday, December 20, 2010

Social Work

I have liked almost every job I have ever had. I've scooped ice cream, worked at a movie theatre, toiled in a newsroom, did triage in a hospital. Spending a structured day with people with whom you have things in common, your own computer, business cards, a lunch room with a microwave... and they pay you for this too? It's like kindergarten with a 401(k).

I have felt genuine sadness upon leaving almost every job and have only left places of employment when relocating out of state. By choice, not because the company's legal counsel suggested I do so.... Although I easily grow weary of the inevitable technological and bureaucratic quirks of a workplace--such as calls that must routed through a Tetris-playing receptionist, or computer passwords that expire with no warning--for the most part, I love the quasi-social environment of the workplace.

The mental health field, my chosen line of work, is a profession where we frown upon so-called "dual-relationships," meaning that it is an ethical faux pas for your stockbroker or spouse to also be your patient. While this does not really apply to office interactions, since it would be more than a little awkward to set up a Victorian fainting couch in a cubicle to provide psychoanalysis during lunchbreak. But how cool would one of those Oriental-rug-draped sofas look amidst my government-issued simulated woodgrain filing cabinets?

This separation of church and state aspect of the workplace is easy and, frankly, part of what makes the office such an interesting place to be around. When I was just out of college, my coworkers were my demographic clones, and it was obvious that we would work together, spend lunch break talking about people at work who were not our demographic doppelgangers, and finish the day be emailing each other from our adjoining cubicles to plan what we would do after work. The hours where we were not physically inside of the office, we were meeting and greeting our college friends at trendy bistros (lunch) and bars (after work).

However, once I was no longer at the bottom of the barrel paying career dues with my prep school peers, I was pleased to see that I had passed the grown-up test and was deemed capable of mixing with people with a large variety of ages, interests, training, background, tastes, styles--everything from Type A to Z. In addition to hearing their points of view at office meetings, trainings, or elevators, I also learned about gallbladder operations, Quinceanera parties, IRS audits, and grandchildren's stints in rehab. When I asked other coworkers if they were aware of various disclosures that had been shared with me, they usually were not, even those who had worked in the office for many more years. The reason for the sharing of these coffee-machine confidences with me? My theory is I have a perpetually perky facade, honed at an all-girls' school, or perhaps I reek of the scent of being a captive audience--the smell of my palpable fear of being rude by cutting off their stories. I usually have no personal reference point for many of the anecdotes that are shared with me. I often feel like an imposter, trying not to be identified as an elitist interloper, or a clueless coworker. But I like to ask questions, can nod on cue and have a natural un-Botoxed furrowed brow that can convey an intense interest in the topic at hand. I appreciate that the security guard at work and the woman in the chart room have deemed me worthy to share their secrets. But the beauty of a workplace is there is no expectation that the relationship will expand beyond these extended pleasantries.

Come to think of it, there has only been one job that had an office vibe that was so inhospitable, even I was not able to make the best of it. Doors were slammed shut. Sarcasm reigned at meetings. And, for a reason I still cannot fathom, there was a timeclock to punch in and out, even though we were all on salary and often were at morning and evening meetings off-site. This workplace was so toxic that approximately 12 of my colleagues left within a six-month window of my departure. Although I consider myself to be a model coworker and team member, my ego is not so inflated that I assume their leaving was contingent upon my departure. I remember the day I knew it was time to shop the old resume around. The CEO, who interestingly was married to the COO (it was that kind of company), apparently was not happy with me, and pinpointed his displeasure with my performance thusly: "You smile too much. Why do you smile so much?" True story. Left the company. And lived happily ever after.


  1. I can really relate to this post Karen!

    I too work in mental health, and have a face that invites confidences from others. I won't ever forget the look on my sister's face after watching me listen to a woman in Wal Mart who stopped and told me her whole family history and legal problems, after which my sister asked who she was.
    My reply was "don't know, never saw her before in my life" and off we went to finish our shopping....

  2. Hi, Cath--Before graduate school, I always thought: "If I had a nickel for every time a stranger shared their life story with me..." and now as a psychologist, I get slightly more than a nickel for it! :) Glad to know you are a kindred spirit! Best, Karen