Recognition in the workplace

I went out for breakfast this weekend with one of the guys from work and his girlfriend. We recently discovered that we live about 5 blocks from each other; since they’re kind of new to the area, we decided I should introduce them to my favorite breakfast place.

This was his first outside-work (and non-post-work/happy hour) get together with a co-worker (who isn’t even in his department). Not surprisingly, we got to talking about the distinct and varied protocol of office friendships. 

These relationships are something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. You spend so much of your life in the workplace, surrounded by an assorted collection of people… I see the QA guys more than I see my husband each week. So you have to figure out some kind of relationship, right?

Yes, professional, of course. But in any group of people… it seems you have to find some way to honor the affinities you feel. People are social critters, after all. Some of my officemates are genuine friends, who I see after work, whose families I know, whose pets I have fed. Most are people I chat with, talk about weekends past and present, work stuff, and the occasional movie or local event. I know their wife’s name, I’ve seen their kids when they stop by for a visit.

The various kinds of work relationships have been particularly on my mind since the company has been “undergoing some changes” over the last couple of months. Contracts are closing, a few people are leaving… some are people who have been a pretty big part of my learning how to get along in “my first real job.” That’s rough. Some are people I don’t know well at all… but who I like very much. And that’s rough too.

The things is… the people you work with form the landscape of your day. When it shifts around, it’s sometimes hard to keep your footing.

One fella, who’s only been with us for about 9 months, is a very nice engineer with white hair, a mustache, and a very curious mind that brings him to my desk every couple of weeks, asking about a formatting issue, or for a copy of my notes from a meeting, or maybe help with saving a document a certain way. It’s nice to have someone appreciate the work you do, y’know?

I heard yesterday that this very nice engineer is one of those who will be leaving us soon. This morning, he rounded to the corner to my window-facing desk and said, “You know I’m leaving right?” I nodded and sighed, because, yes, I did know, and he’s a nice man, and it’s too bad anyone is leaving.

“So now I can say anything I want. So I have to ask: What’s the deal with the braid?” I didn’t know exactly what he was talking about… he gestured to his shoulder. “The long braid on the side. That was you! You did that, just the other day. Where’d you get the idea?”

He’s right, I did have my hair braided to the side the other day. It’s getting long enough to get stuck in things, like car doors and pant waists, so I braid it often to the side like that. Mostly when I don’t feel like combing it in the morning, or, as I told him, because it gets in the way. “Well, I haven’t seen that for years,” he said.

Then he pulled out a framed photo and handed it to me, a hand-colored portrait from the early fifties that looks like a watercolor. A pretty young woman with a long, glossy brown braid down her left shoulder smiled up at us. “My wife and her three sisters weren’t allowed to cut their hair till they got married.”

It was such a sweet thing that he brought in this photo to show me, that something reminded him of her. She really looks beautiful in the photo, and I told him so. “Well, I had to show you that,” he said, as he took the photo back and headed downstairs. What I didn’t tell him was how much it touched and surprised me that he equated that little moment of recognition as something he needed a certain amount of liberty to say. But I think he saw me smile at him on the stairs…  

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