office hours

How to Commute With a Colleague You Barely Know

“I don’t know them!” Photo: @MariahCarey/Instagram

A famous song once said, “Life is a highway, and I’m going to ride it all night long.” Highways are rarely built for one car and one car only, and so perhaps a better lyric would have been “Life is a highway, and now I have to ride it with literally all these people I don’t like.” That would make more sense. If Tom Cochrane had the forethought to write the correct lyric, things might have turned out differently for him.

This highway that we ride takes us many places, but most often it will lead us to work. Unlike most roads, there is no turning off or veering in another direction. This road is a straight shot, and we will very often get stuck riding it with people we hardly know but are obligated to speak to because we work with them.

Unless you drive to work in your own personal namastation wagon, where no colleagues are invited to join, you will surely encounter co-workers on your commute to and from your office. Life is a highway, but many of us take public transportation, which makes it essential to develop strategies for interacting with little-known colleagues as painlessly as possible. You may have made plans to read a book or listen to music or zone out, but Harris from sales will not let this happen when you both board the train heading home. Don’t know enough about Harris from sales (or was it Harold?) to last the 30-plus-minute ride back to your neighborhoods without slinking quickly into awkwardness? A few foolproof suggestions to make this highway called life a little smoother:

Ask About Their Shirt
An easy entry point into any conversation with a person you don’t know exceptionally well is to ask them, with a straight face, about their shirt.

“What’s up with that shirt?” you might ask, for example. Or you could even add a hint of intrigue by leading with “I’ve seen a shirt like that one before. Can you give me more details?” Even if they’re wearing a white T-shirt or a crew neck or whatever other kind of shirt there is — I don’t know, there are probably literally hundreds of kinds of shirts, I’m not an expert, please stop asking me — they’ll be into this. People love to talk about their sartorial choices, specifically when you bring the conversation into the shirt realm.

The “What Do You Collect?” Question
No person on earth is safe from developing a potentially life-damaging hoarding habit. Follow my lead:

“What do you collect, Harris?” you’ll say.

“Uh … ” His eyes dart from side to side. Palms are sweaty, knees weak. Arms heavy.

“It’s okay,” you interject. “I collect ______.” At this point, to make Harris comfortable with revealing a part of himself that causes him shame, you can either share your devastating collection of swatches of horse fur that I know you have, or you can make something up. Truvia sugar packets. Boxes packed to the brim with out-of-circulation currency. A whole Kardashian-size closet of shirts, good-ass shirts, the kind you want to talk about someday with a colleague. Pick your poison and lay it on him.

After you’ve detailed your very real many swatches of horse fur or your fake collection of francs and pesetas, Harris will then ruin your life by feeling comfortable to discuss the specific details of his collection of never-worn Air Jordans. The twist here is that Harris is a sneakerhead! You have been burned. You are riding the train with an adult man who collects sneakers. Quit your job tomorrow.

Multiplication Tables
Ah, there’s Cora from HR! She’s walking toward you. She says hi. Before she even gets a chance to ask about how you like living in Nob Hill (LOL), grill her on her multiplication tables. Continue with this until you reach your stop. Don’t for one second let her slip up and say 8 times 8 is 32. This isn’t some fucking game.

Pretend You’re Someone Else That You Work With
When you descend the subway steps to wait for your train after work, dreaming only of edibles and bed by 8 p.m., the colleague whose name you really cannot remember might approach and begin to talk about that meeting you were in today.

“What meeting?” you’ll ask.

“Oh, the one where Randy was going wild about how we’re missing all our deadlines? Pie chart, progress, forecasted expectations? Overtime?” You are only hearing words and not processing much of what your colleague is saying.

A fun game now is to say, “Oh, I’m Hannah. I wasn’t at that meeting”

“What?” this guy, dumb as hell, asks.

“Yeah, I dunno. I’m the girl who works in that other part of the office. I don’t know you. Bye!”

Hand Jive
Everyone loves an impromptu hand jive, even that girl at your job who talks on her phone too loud and always calls you Stephanie by accident.