Inter-office conflict
October 23, 2012 7:32 PM   Subscribe

Please help me manage/cope with this grad school inter-office conflict.

I am a graduate student who works on a research team in a small office suite with undergraduates and two other graduate students. I share an office in the suite with a graduate student from my research team who used to be my best friend. I ended my friendship with her about 9 months ago after escalating controlling behavior (e.g., getting upset with me for talking about or spending time with friends other than her). I tried my best to be compassionate in the way I ended this friendship.

Since we cannot avoid seeing each other daily, I have tried to be kind and professional (e.g., I emailed her to congratulate her on her recent wedding, I always say hi and ask her how she is when I see her), although I recognize that she is hurt. Initially, she ignored me when I said hi to her. I continued to say hi because it feels unprofessional to me to look at her--I have to physically turn around to see who is entering my office, and if it's not her I actually do want to say hi to them--and not acknowledge her presence. She now sometimes says hi back, in a tone that makes it clear that she is unhappy that she is interacting with me.

She never initiates any communication with me other than requesting that I do something differently. This means that she sometimes treats me in what I feel is an unprofessional manner in front of our undergrads. For example, I was working on a project with one of our undergrads, and she came in and said hi to the undergrad, asked her how she was, and made small talk, and ignored me. Today, while I was meeting with an undergrad in another room, she called to me to please push my rolling office chair into my desk. I came in to look at where it was and told her that it doesn't fit under my desk, but she should always feel free to move it if it's in her way. She started talking about how it was always in the center of the floor. I felt frustrated and walked away while she was talking- this was the first time I have responded to her in a frustrated way. While our office is small, and I can see how this would be an issue, it felt petty. It also feels disruptive and unprofessional to approach me about it in front of our students.

I experience her behavior as hostility, which makes me feel stressed and anxious. When she leaves, I sometimes start crying. I feel reluctant to approach her about it because 1) I do not think that I could do so without getting emotional, and 2) I think that she would deny that she is being unprofessional. I do not feel that our research adviser would be supportive since she is very fond of this student, and I think it would reflect poorly on me to bring my personal issues with the student to the faculty. I could move to a different (but very close) office in the suite, but it would be a relatively big undertaking to move all of my computer equipment and files, and I'd still have to see her just as regularly. Also, if I moved, I would have to justify this move to my adviser.

I am looking for any suggestions on how to manage my reactions, respond to her more effectively, and/or prevent this from happening more if I can.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Send her an email that explains you feel like she's being unprofessional and antagonistic towards you and you'd appreciate it if she'd stop.
posted by discopolo at 7:39 PM on October 23, 2012

You friend-dumped her and she has to see you every day. Her ego is bruised and I think any confrontation will make it even worse. I say, continue to give her the benefit of the doubt. Be kind, and eventually the icy facade will break.
posted by murfed13 at 8:11 PM on October 23, 2012 [9 favorites]

Welcome to office culture. You can't change it, but it can change you into someone even less happy than you are now.

One thing you might be able to do right now is change to the feng shui. If either office offers you the chance to be facing the door, do it. I find it profoundly unsettling to have people who I think have it in for me quietly approach from behind. It's a normal response.

I am looking for any suggestions on how to manage my reactions, respond to her more effectively, and/or prevent this from happening more if I can.

Daniel Goleman's books, Working with Emotional Intelligence and The Emotionally Intelligent Workplace helped me survive in a way that helped my career and my stress levels.

Your boss is a co-dependent jerk, don't let it mess with your self esteem.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 8:13 PM on October 23, 2012

I don't know how to solve this, but I think that moving offices would improve matters at least a little. To deal with your objections to this:

1. "big undertaking to move all my computer equipment and files". Two hours? Five hours? A day? Unless we're talking something on the order of a week or more, just swallow the lost productivity and go for it. Enlist friends if possible.

2. Justifying move to advisor. Lie. Dissemble. Fabricate. Air temperature, lighting conditions, subsonic vibrations, need to be nearer window / door / corridor / North Pole. If possible, frame it as consideration for your office-mate: your desk chair gets in her way, your cheery banter distracts her, etc.

3. You still see her just as often. Perhaps, but you spend less time in close proximity, which I think would be helpful. And maybe she doesn't prowl up on you so often.

And, as murfed13 said, I'd continue to be nice. I fear that a confrontation would just be followed by a return of the status quo, with the emotional temperature notched down by a few degrees.
posted by pont at 8:36 PM on October 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

and/or prevent this from happening more if I can.

When she is trying to stir shit in these petty, passively hostile ways, stay calm and reply to her in a polite, but firm way that doesn't play into what she is trying to do. By "not playing into it" I mean when she flips out over how many inches out your desk chair is, don't treat that as if it deserves a serious response. You don't want her to think every time she does this, she can make you jump. I actually think the last part your response here was totally perfect.

she called to me to please push my rolling office chair into my desk. I came in to look at where it was and told her that it doesn't fit under my desk, but she should always feel free to move it if it's in her way.

I don't think you should have gotten up to look at where it was, because that is dignifying her petty complaint too much by treating it too seriously. I also don't think you should have given her the explanation of it not fitting under your desk, because you don't want to set up a dynamic where you have to explain yourself to her. I think when she made the comment about the chair to you, you should have said, in a totally friendly, not snarky-sounding voice, "Please go ahead and move if if it's in your way." The tone of the words is totally friendly, but the content of the words is totally firm and not shit-taking at all.

If you keep reacting in this way, and she keeps coming up with crazy things to complain about, you will look like the normal and friendly one and she will look really petty and weird.
posted by cairdeas at 8:56 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also... I hesitate to give you this advice, but quite honestly, you going on the offensive might be what is needed to really stop this for good. It sounds like she is picking on you because she believes that you can't defend yourself and you won't strike back at all. That you will just be quietly upset and disrupted by her behavior, and at the same time wouldn't lower yourself to her level. Then she can bully you in this really subtle way and get away with it.

I think, like most bullies, if she sees that you will in fact strike back and you're not quite the sitting duck of an easy target that she thought you were, she would cut it out with a quickness.
posted by cairdeas at 9:02 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

You friend-dumped her and she has to see you every day. Her ego is bruised and I think any confrontation will make it even worse. I say, continue to give her the benefit of the doubt. Be kind, and eventually the icy facade will break.

No it won't. It's already escalated from silent treatment to public disdain. Small acts of sabotage are next, where she will do things (or not do them) that make it difficult for you to do your job. Not pass messages or deadline changes on to you, not cc you on work-related emails, etc. If she's giving you subtle putdowns in front of students, she's going to be doing it around your advisor/supervisor as well.

You need to talk to her about it. Not in a big confrontational way, but when she does something like the public chair complaint again, say very directly, "if you have a concern about the office space, we can talk about it, but don't interrupt my work with students to do so." Professional, all about how her behavior affects productivity, not about the friendship. Leave that 100% out of it. No "I know I hurt you but..." or any nonsense like that. You have a professional relationship and you share professional space. That's the issue.

Once you have talked to her informally but directly, then when it happens again you should email her. "We already talked about navigating our shared space. I am happy to talk with you so that we can make changes/accommodate each other, but again, not in front of students and not in ways that interrupt meetings. Is there anything you'd still like to discuss? I am free Wed. at 10."

If it continues then you have a paper trail and you can engage the advisor or justify a move. Although I can't imagine having to justify a move at all ... empty office space is a rare and beautiful thing and you probably only have to say "because it's there." If there's empty office space and you don't want it, I'll take it!

You are sharing office space with a passive-aggressive person. You literally have to watch your back because of the crappy arrangement of your desk and chair. Figuratively watch your back and CYA as well.
posted by headnsouth at 9:43 PM on October 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't know, I have a different read on this than the other commenters.

It seems to me that she might be confused about the boundaries here. You emailing her to congratulate her on her wedding seems more like a friendly overture than a business thing. She does sound like she is being a bit petty with the chair thing, but then again the idea that you sit in your office with your back to the door seems weird to me, too. You don't want to be friendly, but you do want to say hi and ask how she's doing. I could understand her wondering just exactly where the line gets drawn between appropriate business interaction and friendship here.

By the way, you say she recently got married, and also that you broke off the friendship nine months ago because you thought she was being too controlling and jealous of you spending time with other friends. I wonder if the two things were related. I sure hope you weren't originally supposed to be a bridesmaid or her maid of honor! If you were, I would definitely understand her actions. With dresses to decide on, showers and fittings and rehearsals and all of that, I could see her thinking you should be spending more time with her than other friends. Not to mention that some brides go a little nuts wanting the "big day" being perfect, and if you left her in the lurch, she would be not just hurt and unhappy but possibly outright pissed at you.

Did she still invite you to her wedding? If not, she might have been thrown by you going out of your way to congratulate her. Again, where are the boundaries between friendship and business?

Anyway, it might be a good idea to sit down with her privately and clear the air about how you feel the two of you should interact at work. If you really want to get productive results, stress that you are concerned with the way the two of you might be coming across in your interactions in front of others, and how, since you are both professionals, you want to make sure you are projecting that and not any of your personal issues.
posted by misha at 10:54 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've had friendships fade out (changes in lifestyle/priorities, physical distance), shift, and explode (once, when I was 15, over a boy), but I can't remember ever having a conversation in which I formally dumped or was dumped by a friend. It seems kind of extreme, to me. Unless I'm missing something, and people do this all the time, I can imagine that being not only painful, but humiliating for your ex-bff. Because no matter how compassionate you were, that conversation was an explicit exercise of power over her, and there was no room for her to save face. You smacked that puppy on the nose.

It's got to be addressed - you could bring her lattes every morning, and she'd still probably resent you, and I agree that what's going on now is nuts.

I can't see an effective outcome emerging out of a straight professional conversation. By 'effective', I mean real, as in, you don't dread going to work every day, feel calm and comfortable enough to focus on your work.

(I think you're right to assume she probably doesn't want to be reminded of having been rejected. She'll want her face firmly attached, now.) Negotiations are possible when both parties can get a piece of what they want. I agree with misha that the shared goal to put on the table is a good or at least civil working atmosphere, experience, ultimately references, etc. But that's a bit beyond what your lizard brains want (you: 'run away'; she: 'pound of flesh'), and I have a feeling you'll have to wrestle in the mud a bit (off-campus, go to a pub) before you can get near a conversation about how to share space and time at work.

(This is assuming you were both emotionally invested in the friendship, ie that you were actually best friends.)
posted by nelljie at 2:00 AM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

You are a nice person. She is a scary, controlling freak.

You are approaching this with nice person rules.

Document sternly with her. Get supervision; don't let her play you as "the problem," even if she is the favorite. (For all you know, your research advisor is on to her games, by the way.)

And: "do not insult and undermine me in front of grad students" is what goes on in the email between you two.

She's going to get worse, most likely to the point of trying to destroy you. You're going to be baffled, because you're nice.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:48 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

First of all, there is no amount of hassle I wouldn't undergo to move offices to get out of a close personal space with a person I'm not on good terms with.

So if you have any kind of opportunity to move, do it. Just ask, and don't offer any reasons. "I'd like to move to office 203, would that be okay?" If you have to justify it, you can be honest, but don't embellish, "Office Mate and I had a personal falling out and I think it would remove some stress from both of us if we didn't have to be up under each other all day."

Now, you can be civil to Office Mate, but don't cross that boundary. Don't email her about personal events, don't offer to get her a cup of coffee, none of that.

If she acts inappropriately towards you in front of other people, call her out on it. Being nice to someone else and not acknowledging you isn't really inappropriate, you're not on terms any more. Just blow that off, if anyone asks you about it, simply say, "I guess someone peed in her cornflakes this morning." Don't go out of your way to smile and say hi to her. Clearly this just pisses her off.

In the future, you don't have to break up with people. You can change the dynamic of your relationship, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But that's another question for another day.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:00 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am with pont. No more discussion. I can't even imagine you wasted your time thinking and writing this post. You will ALWAYS find such drama kings and queens at workplace and you should always let them do what they want to do. My personal mode of action is, move away from them as much as I can, least interaction possible. Assemble a group of folks who will stand by me in case sh*t happens. Bring drama queen's behavior to other's attention super super subtly. Plan office evening out, if possible and be in very good books with the boss. Everything does not work all the time but if they are crooked then doesn't make sense for you to be kind and gentle.

One final thing, if she is making your life difficult, you should learn to make her life so difficult that she leaves but you do not waste your minute in it. If it takes making a record of her nasty behaviors, do so. (We had one fella who made record of his office colleague, on how much time she wastes in restroom, make-up, coffee, chit chat etc.)


If you are really interested in sorting this out, ask her for coffee and be frank, polite but diplomatic on how to get this thing sorted. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It usually works with mature folks. You make a judgement.
posted by zaxour at 3:30 AM on October 25, 2012

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