April 1, 2012
So you spent part of the morning crafting a long, thoughtful email to your boss, updating her on your project.
Fifteen seconds later, you receive a reply that reads: "OK."
It's hard to squeeze much satisfaction out of that two-letter response. Would a "nice job!" or "great to hear!" have been too much to ask?
While there's a reasonable chance the boss' terse response was a side effect of a busy schedule, unbalanced email exchanges like this may also reflect our more deeply rooted sense of positioning in the workplace power structure. Whether we're communicating face to face or through the winding tubes of the Interwebs, we remain creatures evolved from apes, and our behavior can still mirror that of primates.
Dario Maestripieri, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago and author of the book "Games Primates Play," writes: "Although our high-tech way of communicating might seem to preclude a strong influence of our evolutionary past on the way we act, the rules regulating primate relationships resurface even when we sit down at our keyboards to catch up with friends or reply to work memos."
(Insert your own "I always thought my co-workers were a bunch of chimps" joke here.)
I spoke with Maestripieri, and he said email exchanges remind him of the way primates communicate, particularly with regard to the role of dominance in a relationship.
The long, thoughtful email a worker sends to his boss is akin to a lower-status chimp starting to groom a more dominant one. The low-status chimp will spend a long time cleaning the boss chimp, hoping the dominant creature will return the favor.
But, Maestripieri said, "Usually the dominant one waits around a bit, and then maybe grooms the subordinate for a short period of time and then stops."
Thus the boss' short reply to a worker's detailed note.
"You can tell whether there's a difference in status from who starts the conversation, from how quickly the reply occurs," Maestripieri said. "Even though we use emails, it's about how long our messages are, whether we start a conversation unsolicited. That all reflects dominance. It's not random."
These apelike tendencies are certainly not restricted to the email arena.
Consider this reader's problem: "I hate it when people sit on my desk. I find it disrespectable and, because I eat lunch at my desk, gross. I tell them not to; they forget. I get out the Formula 409; they ignore it. I've covered most of my desk with a gigantic calendar, but the chronic desk sitters just push it out of the way or sit on it. Suggestions?"
You could try saying, "Hey, you know how Sir Mix-A-Lot liked big butts? I don't, so get yours off my desk." (That's some alpha-monkey talk right there.)
I also would be inclined to encourage the use of thumbtacks, but as a workplace-advice columnist I've taken an oath of nonviolence.
What's really at issue here is an invasion of personal space, something many office workers can relate to, whether it's a desk sitter or a loud phone talker or someone who reaches over and grabs a potato chip off your plate without asking.
These may simply be poorly mannered people, or it may be that subconscious assertion of dominance.
I spoke with Pattie Hanmer, a personal space expert based in Washington who counsels people about the home and work areas they inhabit.
"Anybody standing over you, talking or giving instructions, that person's own power position is multiplied," Hanmer said. "It's certainly not being very respectful. And it's also possible that the person behind the desk doesn't have a great sense of respect for themselves in their own personal space, so it's very easy to encroach on them."
The good news is you can learn to assert some dominance.
Hanmer said it's not good enough to tell someone not to improperly invade your space.
"You have to give them a reason. You can't just say, 'Don't sit on my desk.' You need to say something like, 'Please don't sit on my desk because it really upsets me, and if I'm upset, I'm not able to get my work done.' Say why it doesn't work, what you'd like them to do about it, and what the consequences are. Then you're making it very clear."
Hanmer said a client is dealing with a similar problem. Co-workers keep popping into her cubicle, asking questions, chatting and being generally disruptive.
Hanmer's advice was to tell each problem person individually: "This doesn't work. If you have questions, I need you to come into this space only during certain hours."
"So she has given them some restrictions," Hanmer said. "She also changed the position of her desk so she can make direct eye contact with anyone coming in. Now she can see them straight away and give some body language that says, 'Not now. Not appropriate.'"
Most of us need a space of our own, whether it's at home or at work. It provides a bit of comfort and security amid all the nuttiness we face.
"The more comfortable you can feel in your own environment, the more productive and happy you're going to be," Hanmer said. "It can either excite you or deplete you."
So don't let the big-butted apes get away with making you uncomfortable in your own workspace. Stand up and beat your chest a little.
And if that doesn't work, there are always thumbtacks. I think deep down most apes would approve.
Talk to Rex: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at firstname.lastname@example.org and like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere.
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