I share a work space with two women. Three of us in one room. We make it work. We have harmony without trying very hard. It feels like an unspoken agreement; our jobs are the hard things, our harmony while we do them will therefore not be a hard thing. One of us is messy. One of us is loud. One of us is Me and I am not sure what they endure/overlook/ignore about me. I could speculate but as my friend Michele says, what people think of me is none of my business. There is surely something. They surely talk about it when I am not around. Whatever it is they put up with it in turn and we get along peacefully.
One of my office mates has two half-cubicle walls defining her space in a corner. They are not quite full height, and not full length, so her boundary isn’t closed. She made some brilliant magic with them one day. Needing more of a barrier between herself and the noise and energy and traffic, she put up curtains across the opening. She doesn’t use them all the time but there are days when they are necessary. Lots of people come in and out of our department in the course of business. When she needs more solitude or less distraction she simply pulls the curtains closed. It’s a gentler magic than a closed door or asking us to shut up or leave her alone. And it works. It’s a non-confrontational signal to the rest of us and we respond amicably.
As the weeks have gone by I noticed there is a secondary magic afoot as well. Because the cubicle walls are not full height, the bar stretched across them to hold the curtains is hung low. My friend ducks under it when moving to and from her space. The bar is also extremely sturdy. It is not a flimsy curtain rod. Short, thick, strong metal tubing; also black so it disappears in peripheral vision. When the curtains are open and folks go charging into her space without regard for the boundary, they smack their foreheads on this metal pole. It hurts. We’ve all watched it happen many times. At first she put up a sign, watch your head. But as with all things we see every day, folks simply stopped seeing the sign and went back to smacking their foreheads despite it. So she took the sign down.
Weeks have now turned into months. After innumerable forehead smacks, folks have stopped charging into her space to bark orders, drop paper bombs, demand attention, or otherwise create stress. To protect their foreheads, they slow their roll now. They stop at a respectful distance now, pausing just outside the boundary of her work, her focus, and her personal space. The risk of a forehead punch gives them pause. They acknowledge they are interrupting her now instead of blindly plowing into her space to spew havoc as before. They drop the volume of their voices and greet her less combative, even if they are coming in with a problem.
As a bonus, folks have stopped violating her space when she’s not in the room, because sneaking back out in a hurry causes them to crash right into that fat black curtain bar like a cosmic punishment. No more poaching supplies, borrowing her equipment, or the anonymous dump shit-on-desk-and-run. You’d think with two other people in the room people wouldn’t try to get away with stuff, but some seem to think they stealthy enough or slick enough to pull it off. After all, we’re busy working; we won’t notice, right? Everyone who tries it gets bashed in the head in the haste to flee, as if the Universe is saying, not cool, asshole.
They all say the same things after they’ve been bashed. I hate this fucking bar. I’m going to take this damn thing down and (insert preferred method of destruction). They smack it back, or yank on it, or examine its installation as if to fathom how it remains in place after such blunt force. Many try to coach, beg, or threaten her to take it down so they won’t get smacked anymore. She doesn’t take it down, or at least, she hasn’t so far. Gradually, blow by blow, instead of removing the bar they are all modifying their behavior so they won’t smacked anymore. I am in awe of this.
This is an especially difficult time in our business. Factors which make our jobs hard on the daily are magnified in difficulty during the last quarter of the year. The intensity and pressure is jacked into the red zone. Everyone is doing their best to bear up, as the Brits say. We all try to soldier on and push through until the end of the year. Tempers are flaring. Patience is expiring. We’re all cracking. My office mate pulls those curtains closed a lot more often but even so, office peeves are experienced dramatically out of proportion to the normal level of irritation.
One such peeve is the habit of tired, stressed-out, clearly-not-thinking coworkers who stand in the doorway of the room to state their business, interrupting the work flow of all three of us who share this room. I sit closest to the door, which is why it probably bothers me most. Instead of walking into the room to speak to the one person needed, they hover in the doorway and call out their need, forcing all three of us to listen up. Breaking the concentration and momentum of all three of us instead of the one person required; this is burning me up hot right now. So fucking rude. So fucking inconsiderate. And I want to complain with a flamethrower. But this week my fury diffused a little as I gazed at those curtains during a mental break.
Like the curtain bar, I needed a way to compel people to modify their behavior for their own benefit, which is far more effective than asking them to modify their behavior for my benefit. Closing the door doesn’t work. We’ve tried that. It makes people angrier and more belligerent. My work space is line-of-sight from the door but several feet deep within the room. What would smack foreheads from this distance? Only something visual. A sign? Nope, people stop reading signs if they see them every day. What would change way people enter this room at first sight? I hate admitting this, but the answer has made me a hypocrite.
I broke with tradition and well before Thanksgiving, I put up my black glittery Yule tree on a corner of my desk. What you Christian folks call a Christmas tree. In November; Mercy doesn’t do this — ever. I’m the one who defends November, remember? Not today. White lights against the black branches, bright ornaments, sparkles, spangly show-stopper tree-topper, the whole thing; breaking my own iron-clad rules and eating my own crow-flavored words. But y’all, it worked. That sparkly tree is the first thing people see when they hit the doorway to the office. It makes them stop and smile, and I shit you not, they say the word LOVE.
SMILE “Oh, I love it.”
(gasp) SMILE “I love your tree, Mercy.”
SMILE “Wow, I love _______ about/on your tree.” SMILE
They all may still be interrupting all three of us from the doorway but they are doing it with the word LOVE, and with smiles, and a softening of whatever intention brought them to the door. And I smile at them in return as I stop what I’m doing. And this makes it easier. All of it; the work, the stress, the endless problem-management instead of problem-solving. That subtle shift. The subtle uplift. It matters. A gentler but every bit as potent magic. None of us would have otherwise smiled at each other, and my frustration would have continued to build until I lashed out, making us all feel worse.
A set of curtains prompted this, friends. Gray curtains. White pattern. Hemmed with staples. Neutral, simple, inexpensive, unremarkable, hung on a scrap metal tube zip-tied to cubicle walls, but magical nonetheless. In my seasonal hypocrisy, I am in awe of this.