Our office intern asked me a strange question this morning:
My answer must have taken longer than expected, because she hurried to clarify: “Like, if you don’t like someone, does it show on your face? Do you behave differently toward them?”
The easiest way to put it would be, I do, but not in the way the question supposes.
By “behaving differently,” the question implies cold shoulders or eyerolls. What I mean by it, though, is a conscious1(though often reluctant) effort to be civil.
It is different, still. When I dislike someone, I’d usually prefer to knee them in the groin. But that’s hardly ever permissible in everyday interactions; when it comes to people we dislike, we’re more likely to be asked to work together than to be allowed to inflict bodily harm.2Most of us have at least one group project we would’ve wanted an exit door for, or a co-worker whose desk should’ve come with an eject button.
This used to frustrate me to no end. Why can’t I just dislike somebody and be done with it3or, more accurately, with them? Then I stopped being a teenager, and I realised I didn’t have the energy for endless frustration. And endless it usually would have been, because most people aren’t aware that we dislike them; those who know probably don’t care anyway. The upshot is that active dislike takes time and effort, all for hardly any payoff.
Between outright like and dislike, though, there’s a lot of room for civility. That’s where I try to spend my time these days. This isn’t some form of wisdom or kindness. Instead, consider it an attempt at self-preservation: If I have to work with people I don’t want to spend time with, then I might as well make the experience as painless as possible. This is what’s necessary for us to get things done, so this is as much of my time, effort, and goodwill as I will give you. Or, put differently: This is as little of my life as you will occupy.
Some people might find that cold. Maybe it is; but it’s also efficient, and it spares me the trouble of thinking about difficult people any more than I have to.
Recently, I’ve found myself trying to apply the same mindset to work in general. For example, I’m trying to be more vigilant about my working hours.
I’m one of those people who care too much about what I do: given a task or goal, I can’t stand the idea of doing anything less than great. If this sounds like a humblebrag, it’s not. In practice, this just means that work takes over my life, and I torch my reserves to accomplish even unreasonable tasks. This is neither healthy nor sustainable, but lately I’ve found myself in a setting rife with situations that could feed this tendency.
So: vigilance, which means drawing clear lines that I do my best not to cross. Mentally checking out of work at 6pm. Keeping Slack off my phone. Logging out of the work email on weekends. Muting notifications for the office group chat. Most important of all, though, is making peace with the fact that enforcing these limits will sometimes mean adjusting deadlines, asking for help, saying no.
Five years ago, that would have been horrifying — a circumscription of potential, an admission of inadequacy. Today, I try to remind myself that these limits save me from depletion. There’s still the itch to do well, all the time, but I’ve only got so much of myself to throw around, and not everything is worth it.