‘How Should I Handle My Co-worker’s Unhinged Rants?’

Illustration: Emma Erickson

Dear Emily,

Recently I had a phone call with a colleague, a very esteemed and intelligent person who I admired very much but had never met. (We work at different ends of our organization.) It was supposed to be an ordinary conversation — I needed the answers to a few concrete questions. But it became an extraordinary conversation because they clearly needed someone to talk to immediately and very seriously — perhaps a professional, one with advanced degrees and a prescription pad. They went on a long tirade about some imagined slight and how enraged they were, for maybe an hour. I think I handled it really poorly and I feel bad about it. I wasn’t true to myself. This person needed a bucket of cold water and I handed them a warm blankie. I didn’t want to be a target of their anger too, and I think that’s sort of an acceptable answer, but I also think I did everyone a disservice. My question is: Did I do the wrong thing? What do I keep in my back pocket to pull out and say next time this happens?

Anonymous Co-worker Who Is Not Talking About Any of You Who Are Reading This

Dear Anonymous Co-worker,

You had an understandable impulse to keep your head down and mind your own business as much as possible, even when a colleague’s marbles were lost, spilling out and rolling around on the floor. In some work-related situations, this is the correct impulse, which is probably why you defaulted to it! But right now, it seems like your true self, your human-being self, is at war with your work self. Your work self wanted to nod along and avoid getting involved in trouble that doesn’t concern you. Your human self wanted to do the right thing, or at least the thing that felt aligned with your actual personality. If the person on the phone had been a friend rather than a colleague-stranger, I don’t think you would have hesitated to dump that bucket of cold water.

Capitalism makes people behave in strange ways. We’re so used to conditions of scarcity and competition that sometimes we act like cowards even when it’s not necessarily helpful or productive. You say that if you could listen to a recording of the call, you’d be embarrassed: Is it because you feel like you have to throw cold water over your own direct, no-nonsense impulses when you deal with your colleagues? If so, why is that? I don’t know where you work, so it’s hard to know how appropriate it is to tell you to let a truer version of yourself shine through. If it’s a super-formal law firm or some other kind of Serious Business, I guess you just suck up the bad feelings and keep cashing the paychecks. But if it’s some kind of normal email job, you can probably get away with being a little bit more real all around.

You don’t exist to be a co-worker’s amateur therapist, yes-man, or emotional-vomit barf bag. If this person or — it could happen! — somebody else tries to use you for these purposes again, you have a couple of options besides sitting there and making consoling noises for an hour. The most aggressive path is to do what you want to do: Tell it like it is! Tell the person they’re overreacting and make it clear that you’re not here for their whining, then reiterate what you need from them, the initial reason you called. That might be a lot, and if you’re comfortable making an enemy, it’s the right course to take. You won’t hang up cringing at your own falseness, that’s for sure. But if you want to play it slightly cooler and still maintain some integrity, you can shut the colleague down kindly but firmly. You would love to hear more, but you just need to get what you need and get out because you are BUSY. After all, you probably truly are busy. But in this case, even if you’re not, you are. Maybe you have a pressing deadline or a meeting that starts in ten. You wish you could hang out and lend an ear, but you just don’t have time right now (or ever). After this happens a couple of times, even an emotionally dense co-worker will start to get the message.

Above all, I sympathize with your plight; it’s hard to figure out how to be at work, especially since most workplaces encourage us all to act like we’re buddies when in fact only some of us are buddies, while some of us would not put each other out if the other one of us were on fire were it not for the fact that we share a cube-maze and a coffee-maker and a set of bathrooms. Dealing with that fundamental falseness is part of what makes work … work. But I have found that the more I can bring my real personality to the table, the more comfortable I feel doing my job. In fact, the older I get, the more I feel that I barely have a choice in this. It’s exhausting to be fake around the people you see every day, and frankly, I no longer have the energy for it. I used it all up in my 20s, most of which I spent either being nice to drunk tourists who wanted me to do a shot with them at the bar where I worked or chipperly answering my publishing boss’s phone (the phone! It was a long time ago) and fielding the requests of disgruntled or undersocialized authors. It’s up to you to find that happy medium that allows you to get off the phone feeling confident that you stayed true to yourself, within reasonable limits.

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‘How Should I Handle My Co-worker’s Unhinged Rants?’