I Just Work Here

Yes, it is a jungle out there: Email and gorilla warfare

We interact like office primates, whether it's email exchanges or sitting on desks

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Primate co-workers

Sometimes the office is more like a jungle than it is a place of work. (Loungepark, Getty Images / March 30, 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."

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