Once, in high school, a friend who had just returned from summer camp told me about something she called the “3-9-1” phenomenon. It worked like this: A boy who was of middling attractiveness in the real world would, in the closed-circuit environment of a co-ed summer camp, begin to look very cute. After camp ended, the boy’s appeal would vanish; his hair looked less swishy, his acne seemed worse, and it became obvious that his braces would be an impediment to good kissing. My friend would so regret that she had ever found him appealing in the first place that his attractiveness rating — which had earlier climbed from a 3 to a 9 — would plummet to 1.
Any self-contained, temporary social ecosystem — a college class, a study circle, a weekend group trip — has a way of shifting your perceptions of attractiveness. And in adulthood, no environment has a greater distorting effect than the workplace. Enter the “Office Ten.” An Office Ten is a person who falls somewhere between average to mildly good-looking in the world at large but skyrockets to wildly attractive within the confines of an open-concept desk plan. Office Tens rarely manage you or report to you; more often than not, they’re at the same rung of the corporate ladder or, at most, one or two higher. They don’t work closely with you, either, because knowing too much about their ability to execute deadlines or their shitty work-life balance would disrupt the fantasy you’ve built of them in your head. To be clear, no one is full-blown crushing on the Office Ten, nor is an Office Ten here to be hit on. They are here to add a little spice to your otherwise ho-hum workday, making every dreary slog to the coffee machine a low-stakes chance to interact with someone who gives you one — and no more than one — butterfly in your stomach.
Much like 3-9-1’s, the Office Ten is born from a combination of scarcity and proximity. One friend, whom I’ll call Nicole, told me about a painfully boring temp sales job she took right after college where the Office Ten was “the only somewhat okay-looking guy in the office.” She describes him as “very generic-looking, on the short side with a lot of freckles, dark-red hair, and didn’t vote in the 2016 election. But the only entertainment I had the whole day was flirting with this guy just because he was there.” Another woman I spoke to — we’ll call her Abby — recently worked at an arts organization with very few eligible straight men, and she identified her Office Ten as a “muscular Colorado climber, scruffy beard, flannel shirt, small in a nimble way.” He stood out from the slender, vaguely artsy men in her line of work, and her entire department was abuzz. In the real world, the man wouldn’t have been her type (“I wouldn’t have picked him out at a bar, and his puppy-dog charm would have never worked on me in real life,” she told me), and he had a girlfriend. But in a way, that made it better. It offered a sort of safety that made everyone comfortable talking about him.
There are several paths to becoming the Office Ten. When I worked in an office filled with stylish straight men, for example, my Office Ten was simply the least douchey guy around. But one common way of achieving Office Ten–dom is by being the most socially competent man in sight. Serena, a management consultant in New York, said her Office Ten was “very outgoing and so charming” in her strict corporate workplace. She describes her usual type as “grimy,” while he was “very neat and put together” — “He always has a fresh haircut and gels his hair every day” — but because he was the “first semi-attractive person” she met when she started at the firm remotely, she ended up romanticizing him out of boredom. Another friend, Lindsay, told me about a charismatic second-year paralegal at her law firm, “a very ordinary man who became very extraordinary in the office setting.” He was “supersmart, went to Columbia for undergrad, and used big words correctly,” but the biggest thing he had going for him was that he was one of the few guys she worked with who could make sustained eye contact and carry a conversation. (Eye contact seems to be a widely exalted Office Ten characteristic.) She wasn’t even sure she would have swiped right on him had she seen him on a dating app. “But at work,” she said, she and her co-workers “giggled about him like middle-schoolers. It gave us something to daydream about while we were alphabetizing.”
That’s what makes Office Tens so vital psychologically — they’re desires we fabricate to make our work lives more interesting. And now that we’ve experienced the joys of working from our couches five days a week, we need them more than ever. What else could make dragging your bleary body into a half-vacated zombie of an office sound remotely appealing? It’s not just the possibility of running into the Office Ten at the snack fridge or walking by them in the hallway that breaks up the monotony of the workplace; it’s also the thrill of rushing back to your co-workers to recap the exchange, which was probably not much more than a mutual “hey.” One investment-banker friend told me her Office Ten, a “midtown-uniform first-year associate” who wore “Gucci shoes, a Patagonia vest, and hair perfectly parted and flipped back,” was “something easy and fun to gossip about with a good friend at work.”
Men have been comparing notes on their co-workers’ attractiveness for ages, and it’s hard not to see women gabbing about their Office Tens as a descendant of unsavory Mad Men–era ogling. Several women I spoke with articulated the feeling that there’s something slightly gross about it — but unlike leering male CEOs, they, at the very least, have the sense to try to keep Office Tens unaware of their objectification. Relegated to watercooler whispers and Slack gossip, the Office Ten can peacefully do his job without having to dodge unwelcome advances at his place of work. If 1960s workplace misogyny was like high-school boys circulating a hot-or-not list, the Office Ten is like taping a Tiger Beat poster of Zac Efron to the inside of your locker.
Besides, openly hitting on an Office Ten would threaten their inherent Office Ten–ness. Like mermaids or Tinkerbell, these guys cannot hack it outside their natural environment of ergonomically sound chairs and HVAC-filtered air. “Office Tens should not become more than knowing looks with your fellow co-workers,” Abby, my friend with the nimble mountain-climber Office Ten, asserted. She hooked up with the Colorado-climber guy after he and his girlfriend broke up, only to find that her attraction immediately wore off. Nicole, who spent that month at her boring temp job half-heartedly admiring that short redhead, didn’t find his freckles nearly as cute after he dropped his number on her desk. All her co-workers urged her to go for it; she gave it a shot after leaving the job but ended up ghosting him after a few dates.
One of my own co-workers, who said she’s found an Office Ten at every job she’s had, learned from experience how to keep this mysterious spark alive. “There was one Office Ten I was friends with,” she said, “and at some after-party, I saw him making out with a girl from another department.” The next day, she teased him about the public make-out sesh, only for him to ask her out via text hours later. “I was, like, Are you fucking kidding me?” she said. “Before that, he was just the tallest guy with the deepest voice.”