I work in a co-working space in a small town with this guy that I will call Tom. Actually, I can’t call him Tom because Tom is the name of someone affable and easy-going, and this guy is neither. I suppose I can call him Norman. That is not quite right for what his name actually is, but it is close enough.
Norman is somewhere between 50 and 70. He dresses like a prep-school headmaster—khakis, cotton shirts, shoes halfway between outdoorsy and office-appropriate—who either knows he is about to get fired or whose school has a sagging endowment. There is perpetually a look of mild surprise on his not un-handsome face; I’m guessing it is a result of his discovering and forgetting, and then forgetting and discovering, that he is not the only person on Planet Earth. I don’t know exactly what Norman does. I have heard the word “webinar” thrown around, and when this happens I do what any self-respecting person does when the word webinar is thrown around: I duck.
Norman talks in a very loud voice. When I imagine him speaking, behind the thin door that separates him from me and the quiet, considerate people who share my office across the hall from his, I see his voice coming out of his mouth, being pumped full of air, and then projected through a cheerleader’s megaphone. His voice is loud the way Elizabeth Taylor's eyes were violet, the way that Ian Curtis was depressed.
In his defense, nature happens. That said, I have a loud voice, and I have come to realize that the volume of that voice can be turned down.
Some people refer to this as Basic Human Awareness.
Another thing I have come to learn: When you work with other people, headsets are good, and speakerphone is bad. Norman is allergic to the former and besotted with the latter. There are five rooms in this co-working space, each of them occupied by at least two other people, some by three or four. Norman has a room to himself. People try to sit in there sometimes, but they always flee, understanding, as I do, that a not-terribly-expensive co-working space is not the proper home for an attitude of “Hey, this is my office and I’m going to just do whatever I want!”
Oh, excuse me. I had to go away for a few minutes to go off on Norman.
I have never gone off on Norman before. What I have done is knocked on his door and said politely, “Can you please put on a headset?” or, “Can you please take your phone off speakerphone?” and I have done this enough times (maybe 15 times over the course of two months) that I felt like I was well within my rights to escalate, especially since the last time (two days ago) I spoke to him he said, “Just give me a break for 10 minutes.”
But here's how things got started today: My co-co-worker and I were sitting here working, and Norman arrived and proceeded to indulge in the use of his absolute favorite technology ever, the speakerphone. My co-co-worker went in and asked him to please take the phone off speaker and to put on a headset. In an affronted tone he explained to her why that was impossible, and, as I was fairly sure it was indeed not impossible but merely something that would cause him vague discomfort, something most people have a habit of enduring on a daily basis, I leapt up from my chair and barreled into his office. I planted my feet and stared at him. I can look really mean. I probably sacrifice some beauty for that privilege, but I can live with that. I began to speak, loudly, for sure, but it was appropriate, given the circumstances. I can’t remember exactly what I said but it was along the lines of, “I am not quite sure why you feel like you’re allowed to have your phone on speakerphone when none of the other 15 people who work here ever use it. I am not quite sure why everyone else who works here is always amenable to changing their behavior whenever another member mentions anything to them while you just look at me, every time I come in here to talk to you, like I am a piece of wood. I am not sure why it has never ever occurred to you that the reason people are angry at your behavior is that it is bad.”
Norman said we were welcome to continue to vent all we wanted, but that he had work to do. I thought about how Norman had at some point learned that the word vent might trick people into thinking there was something wrong with them, and not with him. I explained there was a vast difference between venting and speaking to someone harshly, after a long period of unheeded, polite requests, about their egregious behavior. He said he was going to get a headset tomorrow, and I suggested in the meantime he hold the phone up to his ear. He then tried to pull the negativity card: “I don’t want to deal with your negativity,” he said, which, as far as I’m concerned, is Californian for “I’d like to act like a complete asshole and not suffer any of the consequences.”
Inexplicably, Norman then began to jump up and down. One of the guys who works in my office was downstairs and said he thought that the enormous desk in the conference room next door had collapsed. As Norman jumped up and down I thought about how some people suggest that when you’re being mugged, you can try acting like a lunatic in the hopes this scares off the mugger. As I am not a mugger but a writer who merely likes quiet and, in its absence, basic courtesy, I was not scared. I asked Norman why he was jumping up and down. He said that he was doing it as a way to articulate his enthusiasm for all of us getting back to work, and then made mimed the action of pushing us out the door.
It is clear to me that Norman has attempted, over the course of his blustering, boat-shoe wearing life, to develop some tactics to insure that he can continue to conduct himself not as the rules of society dictate but as he sees fit. This does not sit well with me. Also, for a while after this encounter, he was quiet, which just goes to show that people can indeed be shamed into behaving.
This has all been taken up with the powers that be at our tiny institution. Stay tuned.