Suck-ass work situation.
July 10, 2009 3:09 PM   Subscribe

Had a blowout with a coworker several weeks ago. I was an asshole. Realized it. Waited a couple days. Sincerely apologized and kept to myself. Said coworker is still holding a grudge. Accept it as the new status quo or try more outreach?

I have a coworker I considered a friend. I assumed it was mutual. About 4-5 weeks ago, during morning chit-chat before get-down-to-work time, coworker informed me she was already having a shitty day, bad news in extended family, etc. I empathized. Work started. Found out I was assigned a summer student worker that I had to find a computer for pronto, asked coworker if it was ok to use computer when she was not around (about half the day usually), coworker said "I'll think about it."

Now, computers are generally considered property of the company and occasional sharing is the norm. I expected a "sure, whatever." Her "I'll think about it" irritated me. So I said something along the lines of "I was asking to be nice. I'm using it if it's available." She informed me that she'd be needing some space today, that I'd be best to leave her alone. I instantly realized that I just made her bad day worse... I quickly apologized and bailed out. Got someone else to let me use their computer during down-time. Let coworker alone for a couple days, then asked for permission to apologize, and gave a succinct but sincere apology. I have continued to give space.

You see, this "space" thing got me. As though she sees me as a routine invader routinely tolerated. Now, I realize some people come to work solely to work, and those folks are generally easy to recognize and I let them go about their day. I did not figure this coworker was one of them. She would start conversations with me, continue conversations I started, etc. If I dropped by her office to chat, and she said "yeah, uh huh" and kept looking at her computer, I'd save whatever I wanted to say for another time. Conversely, if she interrupted me, I would generally say something like, "busy. go away." So ample opportunity and precedence to set up a boundary if needed... right?

A couple weeks went by and I didn't start any conversations, make any jokes, or whatever. The vibe just wasn't good. But she also often looked hurt, and more hurt the more we didn't talk. I decided that this was silly-ness. So I stood outside her office and said something like, "This isn't how I want this to go. I value your friendship." The response was that I was welcome to chat any time. So I've started a couple short chit-chats. But it's somehow not the same. She doesn't continue them, and she doesn't initiate with me.

Lastly, just to head off a few people at the proverbial pass: there's absolutely no romantic chemistry-tension-whatever between us. God, no. She's a cool person, but not my kind of girl. And, as for her side, she's happily married to a much better man than me (as much as I can tell, we don't really discuss it, and that's as it should be).

I'm flummoxed. I'm not a people-genious, but I'm usually not this people-stupid, either. Should I accept the status quo or give outreach another try? If outreach, suggestions?
posted by everythings_interrelated to Human Relations (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Sorry this went so horribly for you. I think she'd appreciate it more if you viewed her as a worker who is only there to work, rather than someone who has to be your friend when she's at work.

I don't think you did anything that was really bad. I just think you have to re-evaluate the way you view this relationship...for both your sakes.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 3:12 PM on July 10, 2009

You've done your part and made sure your side of the street is clean. At this point, that's all you can do. Leave it alone and let the friend work through whatever she needs to. Hopefully, things will right themselves. But, if not, you at least will be able to sleep soundly knowing you made a valid attempt at reconciliation.
posted by Rewind at 3:17 PM on July 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

The two weeks of non-interaction were likely seen by her as further unfriendliness by you. After the apology she was expecting you to break the ice and get things back on track but instead you gave her the silent treatment, indicating that perhaps your apology was strictly pro forma.

Your response to her request for space seems like an overreaction, since in context it seems like she was merely asking for space in a particular context - you getting pushy and frankly rude about a work issue in a context where she was having a difficult day for personal reasons.

Either persist and give it time to pass, or invite her to lunch or something and say something like "I feel like you're still upset with me about last month, can we talk about it?"
posted by nanojath at 3:22 PM on July 10, 2009

Rewind has it right. I don't think what you were asking was unreasonable, and it sounds like you just caught her on a bad day. Furthermore, I think it's fine to give people a wide berth if they let you know they're having a bad day. However, if you tiptoe around them too much when they're cranky, they might learn that acting cranky gets them their way. You don't want to encourage that behavior.

Personally, I think she overreacted. Maybe she has something else on her chest, or something else outside of work is affecting her, but if I were you, I'd leave it alone. If she's got some other issue with you, it's up to her to tell you about it.

Just be your regular, decent self. Keep it upbeat, friendly, and professional. If she's truly cool, as you say, she'll eventually realize that life is better when she has a positive working relationship with you, and she'll get over it.
posted by cleverevans at 3:41 PM on July 10, 2009

This might not have a thing to do with you. She may be having something major going on outside of work, and it would be affecting her mood. Just be nice to her and don't worry about it.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 3:44 PM on July 10, 2009 [6 favorites]

I think this kind of snowballed after the first apology and, um, continuation of space-giving. Assuming she doesn't have something else on her mind that is making her distracted or aloof, I see this as a situation where she might have read something different into the amount of space you gave her than you intended.

You have apologized for your initial slight, you have apologized for the post-apology weirdness, and so I think you have probably done enough apologizing. I suggest that you keep on being nice and friendly to her; I am pretty sure that in a bit of time you guys will find your friendship rhythm again.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 4:23 PM on July 10, 2009

"This might not have a thing to do with you. She may be having something major going on outside of work, and it would be affecting her mood. Just be nice to her and don't worry about it."

I favorited this, but wanted to underscore it. It very well could have nothing to do with you, and if you're a nice guy (which you seem to be) and you act decent and nicely towards her, things may thaw out. The ball's in her court, though, so you should take your cues from her.
posted by xingcat at 4:33 PM on July 10, 2009

Yeah, Rewind said it. Sounds like you made an immediate apology followed by another one later, and followed that with showing that you value her friendship. At this point I'd back off and let her show whether or not it is mutual.
posted by rahnefan at 4:36 PM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

All of this advice is great. I have a different idea, though, which has worked for me in the past.

First, you had a good, friendly, often humorous relationship before you being a jerk? And outside of the jerky action, you would still be friends?

So, if you can, lay on the charm. If you can make her smile - make her laugh - it goes a long way toward mending the unspoken pains. I know this from experience.

The charm, of course, should not be creepy, or forced ,or thick, or smarmy. Just -- well, just a humble attempt to make her smile. I don't know if you are such a person; this humble charm I speak of is not something for everyone, and has a good chance at backfiring if done badly.

But if it works, then, maybe, you can bump fists and be all, "We cool?" and she can be all "Yeah, we cool."
posted by jabberjaw at 4:55 PM on July 10, 2009

Can I offer another side of this?

I think you are right in that you were an asshole. "I was asking to be nice. I'm using it if it's available" is such a nasty thing to say or to even think of doing. You showed no respect for her, especially coupled onto the fact that she already told you she was having a difficult day. By disrespecting her like that, you betrayed the trust she had in you.

Granted this is small scale, but if a coworker who I thought was someone I could trust said that to me, I'd probably not want to waste my time on them either. If it was a good friend or a family member, I'd let it slide. But she just may not value your work friendship enough to forgive you for saying something that shitty.
posted by anthropoid at 5:07 PM on July 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

Her "I'll think about it" irritated me. So I said something along the lines of "I was asking to be nice. I'm using it if it's available."

I agree that sounds pretty bitchy, so it's good you apologized. But since you've already apologized twice, you're done.

Back off, be a pro, and let it fade away.
posted by rokusan at 5:19 PM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have another take on this. Those co-workers who think they own/control company property can be really difficult to work with. Yes, you may have gone out of bounds, but the way you handled it afterwards was professional.

The way she's reacting? Not so much. I'd be receptive to her coming to her senses, but wouldn't be surprised if she doesn't.

That, and whatever the personal issues were maybe ongoing, so that maybe part of the problem for her. I'd consider it a lesson learned about snapping and follow her lead for interaction.
posted by cestmoi15 at 5:24 PM on July 10, 2009

you've handled it right. put in your eight hours, keep your bases clean and let her get on with whatever is bothering her. don't push it.
posted by Frasermoo at 5:40 PM on July 10, 2009

Well, she may not *own* the property but people can get pretty territorial about their space. I always hated coming back to my desk in my very open office and finding the chair all jacked up, my favorite pen gone missing and a mouldering coke or half-drunk coffee (not mine) just sitting there from some other person. Also, "busy. go away" doesn't seem very nice either. I never want to bother people at work but it is so much nicer when people acknowledge me and then if they notice that I don't have a pressing issue say something like, "hey, I'd love to talk but I'm under the gun right now, can we catch up later?" I don't know, it's what I'd like for my friends to say.

Having said all that, you've apologized. I agree with the poster above who suggested just going back to being friendly. Maybe overly so. Maybe now is a good time to take her to lunch and ask how things are going with her lately and if there's anything you can do to help her out. That's what friends do. If she's still cold, you've tried and you'll have to move on. Maybe you just think you've annoyed her that one time and in fact it was building up. But, coworker friends are often just that... it's the rare coworker, in my opinion, who crosses that bridge to becoming a true long-term friend beyond the office. Maybe she just isn't.
posted by amanda at 5:56 PM on July 10, 2009

Might this be one of those issues where the way you think about the situation is shaping it? That is, you feel that it's "not the same," and so presumably this comes through somewhat in your interactions, and thus generates a feedback loop, etc. In this way, you're letting the shadow of this past interaction influence all current and future ones. Maybe you if you were able to sincerely convince yourself that things were back to normal, and addressed her in the same cheerful way as you used to, and pretended nothing happened---in short, let the past go---she would start reacting more positively, and things really would get back to normal.

I might be totally off base with this; you'd probably be able to tell much better, since you're actually experiencing the situation. But it's at least worth considering.
posted by Jacen Solo at 5:59 PM on July 10, 2009

But she just may not value your work friendship enough to forgive you for saying something that shitty.

Give me a break, and "i'll think about it" wasn't as equally shitty? If someone choses to not speak to you again or hold a grudge over one argument/bad day/ misunderstanding.. Then that's truly the test of someone you don't need in your personal life.
posted by mattsweaters at 6:15 PM on July 10, 2009

I don't think "I'll think about it" was equally shitty, personally. She was having a bad day; she even told him she was! Could she have said it differently? Of course. But if she was someone the OP really cared about, he would have said to himself 'she's having a bad day, and maybe I should ask her later' instead of being a total dick.

Then that's truly the test of someone you don't need in your personal life.

And this I totally agree with. He didn't give her the space to have a bad day, so why should she give it to him? He failed the test of someone she doesn't need in her personal life. YMMV, as would mine.
posted by anthropoid at 6:41 PM on July 10, 2009

First of all, that is not a blow out at work. A blowout at work involves some variation of, "FUCK YOU! I'LL EAT YOUR FUCKING LUNCH! DO YOU HEAR ME, STUPID? I'LL EAT YOUR FUCKING LUNCH EVERY FUCKING DAY UNTIL YOU DIE!", followed by violently throwing things around the office and breaking furniture.

You had a mildly unpleasant exchange with a co-worker. Don't worry about it.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 7:52 PM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

We all feel the need to control our environment to one degree or another. People are wired differently, so some feel more of that need than others. And with work and home blending these days, even if your work computer is company property, you often feel a kind of personal ownership of it - you don't want somebody else poking around it anymore than you like that workman poking around your house when you're not there. And you caught her on a bad day and said something kind of ugly, which was no doubt magnified by whatever crap she was already dealing with.

With that said, if your relationship with her has otherwise been good (and she shares that assessment), what you describe doesn't sound like a blowout to me. Yeah, it wasn't a great way to phrase it, and surely rankled a bit, but these are the kinds of things people get over, especially if it's clear you felt bad about it and apologized sincerely. So if that's not happening, there's an x factor at work. It could be anything and if she won't engage with you then you're unlikely to figure it out. This could be one of those fun situations where you're expected to read her mind or it could be some unrelated issue.

If you've been earnest and made the effort since the incident, and she's still sending out the do-not-engage vibe, then this is her issue. It's sad if it can't be like it was, but what more can you do? Continue to be pleasant and professional. Recognize that things may not go back to the way they were. But act, for your part, as though they're fine. If she's an irrational grudge holder, she may just take a long time to relent. If she's going through something outside work, it may take a while to resolve. If you're doing right, that's the best you can do. You can possibly consider one last outreach - ask her to lunch maybe, and tell her what you've told us and make sure to give her an opportunity to speak her mind - but if that doesn't pan out, it ain't happenin'. Hold up your end and let her tend to hers.

If you feel you've learned anything from this, use it. But don't internalize it or be down on yourself. It can't hurt to treat people even better than you do now, but other people are out of your control.
posted by Askr at 8:13 PM on July 10, 2009

"Suck-ass work situation"? It seems odd that this bugs you that much. It was just an unpleasant exchange, followed by a few weeks of relative coolness, with a co-worker you had been friendly with. No big deal. I almost think you could do with a little more "I come to work to do my work" yourself, if a less chummy relationship with a co-worker qualifies as a "suck-ass work situation."
posted by palliser at 8:32 PM on July 10, 2009

So here's what happened. You had an employee you considered a friend. You knew she was feeling horribly because of personal business and would probably need space. You went up to her, threatened her space, and then said that you were only requesting that space to be nice which was a total and complete power-play and makes people feel demeaned and pointless. Then, you apologized to her. However, you had already crossed a boundary. And by the way, your workplace habits of you saying 'I'm busy, go away', isn't exactly the friendliest terminology to use toward a person you consider a friend. To top it off, you seem to believe it revolves entirely around you.

Maybe it revolves around what we already know. She had issues in her extended family. That's when the change started, and her mood began turning sour. At that same point, you totally jerked her over. So the truth is, it's not your choice. Out-reach is just about making yourself feel better in spite of her. She already doesn't trust you, and you already let her down. If you thought of her as a friend, you wouldn't have treated her the way you did, and you wouldn't be expecting her to have to accept your apology and for things to be the way they were.

Also, have you considered what happened from her perspective? As you said, after the incident, you avoided her, gave her space, didn't speak to her, then disappeared for a while without making any jokes or small chit-chat. This is after making your apology. Then, you came up to her and said basically 'hey, this isn't working for me. Let's work on this relationship.' But it's you that spent the last few weeks avoiding and abandoning it. So perhaps from her perspective, she thought you treated her poorly, gave a quick apology to make amends, and then disappeared, which probably made her feel even more isolated.

This isn't a question of what you can do to make amends. You can't make amends, because you've taken the wrong steps. You have to deal with the 'status quo', but it's really not your choice, and it's not her fault. The way you treated her and reacted to her has made it so that she would be too isolated and too down to even begin to repair the relationship you said you thought you had, but essentially betrayed by your behavior towards her.
posted by happysurge at 9:01 AM on July 11, 2009

You asked her to use her computer...but the "asking" wasn't sincere. You had already made up your mind what her answer "should" be. When she countered with the answer you didn't like you were defensive. Face it, you weren't "asking" her at all.

How thrilled might you have have been if told that a brand new person, whom you've never met, is going to take over your desk/computer all afternoon when you aren't there..and further.... that you have no *real say* in the situation? I would not be happy about having that sprung on me...especially by a contemporary.

You've apologized, but I'm not sure if you really appreciate for sure how completely overbearing your actions were. Just the same, if you go over old ground with her now it could come across as simpering and weak. Act like it didn't happen and treat her with respect. No need to overdo it..just treat her like you want people to treat you. You sound like an enthusiastic guy who likes his work. If you have an opportunity in the future find a way to give her some credit or something for something you appreciate about her in a public situation. No need to fawn over her..make sure not to overdo it. Time and authentic regard can mend a fence.
posted by naplesyellow at 10:48 AM on July 11, 2009

Thanks for the advice, everyone. I appreciate your time and thoughtfulness. I think I'll stick to my side of the line, give out the "good mornings" and the "it's awful hot todays" and let it go at that. Again, thanks for parsing that long post and providing solid, considerate answers!
posted by everythings_interrelated at 2:22 PM on July 11, 2009

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