How to not let negative coworker get me down?
September 27, 2014 9:30 AM   Subscribe

I work in the same department as a very good friend of mine, we'll call him Tom. Tom hates his job and is very vocal about it all the time. I don't know how to deal with this.

For example, today I asked Tom how he was. The answer was, "I would rather be dead than work here." Exchanges like this are a daily occurrence. I understand why Tom hates his job, but he doesn't do anything to try to make it better. When asked why not, he comes up with some tenuous excuse as to why he can't do such-and-such thing to improve the work environment. He's made it very clear that he won't take any action that might make things better. In fact, in the past when I have tried to make suggestions, he's flat-out become angry at me.

This is NOT a question about how I can help Tom. I have already gone out of my way to help lighten Tom's workload and do other things to help based on his complaints, but the negativity persists. My question is what techniques or resources can I use to keep this behavior from affecting me when I will have to continue to deal with it for the foreseeable future?

Oh, and to stem off the "Why on earth hasn't Tom gotten fired yet for this behavior?", Tom is never going to get fired. He is one of the smartest and most knowledgeable people on the team and has a good relationship with our mutual boss. Please assume that this situation is going to continue indefinitely.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (33 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
"Tom, I love you, man, but you are really bringing me down."
posted by mochapickle at 9:35 AM on September 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

Don't ask Tom how he is doing..
posted by srboisvert at 9:35 AM on September 27, 2014 [37 favorites]

Don't offer suggestions, commiserate, or otherwise indulge his complaints. Just reply with something noncommittal like "that bad, huh?" or "I'm sorry to hear that," and move on. You can't make him hate his job any less, and you can't make him leave, but you can reduce the amount of time you have to spend hearing about it. If his misery isn't interesting to anyone else, he won't share it.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:38 AM on September 27, 2014 [8 favorites]

Stop asking, first of all. That's inviting negativity in. The next step is to stop listening when Tom starts moaning. Deflect and redirect at that point; deflect him onto someone else and redirect him (or yourself) back to the task at hand.

If he continues, be more direct and tell him that you're sorry but you've got work to do. Then go and do that work and use it to be unavailable for his complaints. Stick some headphones in if necessary. Do whatever you can to distance yourself physically from his moaning.

If that doesn't work, just stop caring. Distance yourself emotionally too. Have more important things for you to think about. Maybe it's your plans for the weekend, what you're going to have for lunch, or whether the widget is going to be ready to ship on time. Pay more attention to those things and less attention to Tom's complaints. Over time, you'll train yourself in the fine art of not giving a damn.
posted by Solomon at 9:43 AM on September 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Quit feeding the bears.
- Don't ask him how he's doing.
- Don't do a darn thing to "make his load lighter" or "help him".
- Don't engage when he is negative, at all. Ignore those comments as if they didn't happen.
- If he gets in your face about ignoring it, respond with "If you're not happy, YOU are the one with the power to change it."

And absolutely do NOT participate in any negativeness of your own (or any other coworker's) creation.
posted by stormyteal at 9:45 AM on September 27, 2014 [18 favorites]

Because you say you're good friends with him, I'd just be honest.

"Tom, I don't know if you're aware of this, but you really bitch and complain an awful lot about your unhappiness and it's a downer to listen to you. I want to hang and talk with you, but all your negativity makes it tough."

At least you've marked the behavior and told him that that you'll be avoiding him if he doesn't cut it out.

If you're not actually good friends then I'd stay the hell away from him, period.
posted by kinetic at 9:46 AM on September 27, 2014 [12 favorites]

I have a friend at work - probably my best friend there - who is like this. He is very negative and sarcastic, and I completely get what you mean about it dragging you down. We both realize we may have sold our souls a little bit (or just made some compromises/choices over the years - however you want to look at it). The company I work for is fine, but is not exactly curing cancer or saving the world. And some of us Gen-X types can get pretty down about the difference between our idealistic young dreams and the reality of making a living as a 30-something today in a cube farm. I remind myself that I've made the "work to live" choice (vs. "live to work") a lot.

My friend's regular griping about aspects of work - both big picture and little picture - did get me down for a while. Here's what I did: instead of always commiserating and being empathetic, which is *very much* in my nature, I now actually disagree with him when he says something I disagree with. "Yeah, we're not saving lives but we have good opportunities/benefits here." "Hey, it pays the mortgage, right? Gotta be glad for that." "Oh, so-and-so isn't so bad. I like how she always does [x] when no one else will step up and do it." "Dammit man, you are such a downer sometimes. I'm not going down with you today - so lighten up or I'm gonna go look at pictures of puppies."

This allows me to commiserate and rant with someone when I need to vent, which was important to me - I don't want to lose my best work buddy by turning Strictly Business. But I really needed to start being vocal when I disagreed instead of absorbing all that negativity. You don't always have to be a sponge but you also don't have to draw the super hard line that others are advocating. It just depends on what your priorities and end goal are for this work friendship. You need to decide if the negativity is bad enough that losing the friendly aspects of your relationship is a necessary sacrifice. It may be, but it may not be. Good luck!
posted by misskaz at 9:52 AM on September 27, 2014 [17 favorites]

See this article (it's about marriage, but I think the same strategy might help in your situation):

"What Shamu Taught me About a Happy Marriage"
posted by alex1965 at 9:56 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been in similar situations (and I've probably been someone's Tom more than once). I'd suggest that you avoid talking about work with him -- start conversations with a specific direction, like a movie you've seen or something he did outside of work -- and, if work negativity does come up, make a point of throwing yourself into a work task or project that you enjoy (to the extent that such a thing exists) immediately afterward, just to change the tone for yourself.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 9:59 AM on September 27, 2014

I'm sorry, but "I have already gone out of my way to help lighten Tom's workload" --- does this mean you've taken over doing some parts of his job?!? If yes, stop right now: that's not doing anything but dragging you down too. You should be doing your own job, while Tom does Tom's job.

As for dealing with his negativity: you have a couple of choices here. One is to keep on as you've been doing --- ick, not good!
Second choice is to go ahead and keep on asking "Hey Tom! How are you doing?" but totally ignore his answer --- just pretend he actually said something just as socially polite as your greeting, like 'Fine!' or 'Great!', instead of whatever he actually snarls.
Third choice, of course, is to just stop greeting him.
posted by easily confused at 10:00 AM on September 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

the bottom rungs of the ladder of capitalism are essentially soul-crushing. some souls are stoic and take their medicine with dignity and aplomb, others cry out. tom isn't ever going to get any better until (long-term) he changes jobs or starts his own business, or (short-term) somebody puts illegal drugs in his coffee.
posted by bruce at 10:09 AM on September 27, 2014 [7 favorites]

I would take misskaz's advice and tweak it just a little. Every time he says something negative, use it as an opportunity to remind yourself of something positive. Don't do it for his benefit, do it for yours, but do say it out loud. Kind of like a daily affirmation.

Him "I would rather be dead than work here."
You "I'm so happy that I don't have to do XXX here, like I did at my last job."

Him "This rain is the absolute worst thing ever."
You "I love my rain boots, they work so well and are so comfortable."

Him "I can't do all the work these assholes expect me to do."
You "Luckily, there is NO possibility that I will get laid off! One less thing for me to worry about!"

This little mind trick might actually improve your state of mind, instead of letting him affect you in a negative way. And also, take it as a humorous challenge. "What will he complain about today and how can I use it to my benefit?"
posted by raisingsand at 10:18 AM on September 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

Is your boss aware of this? Is there something they can do to discourage the behavior? Like, shut it down in meetings, force Tom into changing for the better, etc? If you have a sympathetic boss, I think letting them know that Tom's negativity is creating an office-wide morale problem is appropriate.
posted by jaguar at 10:21 AM on September 27, 2014

"Dude, you are seriously bringing me down."
posted by bunderful at 10:50 AM on September 27, 2014

"Oh for god's sake Tom, knock it off with the negativity. You really are a drag to be around when you go on like that." Then change the subject to something the two of you can talk about. Do that every time.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 11:13 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thirding misskaz and raisingsand, with an extra slug of smugness, insincere pity, and childishly competitive glee.

"Aw, you poor thing. I, on the other hand ...
... have a love-ly meeting with Cait-lin, who's going to show me the new graphic designs!",
... revel in our proximity to the banh mi food truck. Too bad you're gluten-free."
... get to work on the Binks account, which means I get to say BINKS all day. BINKS BINKS BINKS!"

Taunting banter is a valid genre of friendship, maybe scarcer in cubicle-land than in blue-collar trades and homosocial bars, but readily adaptable.

Bonus: you needn't beg Tom not to be a downer. His downers are your wins!
posted by feral_goldfish at 11:30 AM on September 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

He's still there, and does well enough that he won't be fired, he resists change.. He enjoys how things currently are. This complaining is just a recreational activity, same as if he couldn't stop talking about sports or politics. There's nothing you can do or say to make it "better" because nothing is actually "wrong".

"I would rather be dead than work here."

Maybe I'm a bad person, but if he responded like that to me I'd probably ask if he wants to borrow a knife.
posted by anti social order at 11:32 AM on September 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

When I was Tom, someone at work was kind enough to consistently do what misskaz suggests, and honestly, it really did eventually change my attitude. I don't bitch nearly as much as I used to, and I've even found a lot to like about my job.

Not saying you should try to change Tom, but expressing gratitude or having a positive attitude about the parts of your job that you like (or that aren't that bad) can't help but make YOU feel better anyway, so why not?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 11:33 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am going to suggest a slightly different approach. You asked for tools to help you cope, which I think is the key question. You noted that Tom is a very good friend, smart, knowledgeable, valuable to the boss. You are looking for ways to not be affected by his vocalization of his emotional state and his lethargy in taking any action to correct his work environment.

I would suggest that you could benefit from reading some of the posts here on Metafilter about depression. There are a lot of very insightful and enlightening posts describing the experience from the inside out. I don't suffer from depression at all, but a number of very important people in my life have. I have learned a lot of compassion from browsing through the posts here and understanding their perspective. For example, inability to take action, extreme comments like "I'd rather be dead than be at work", etc. I learned that people who don't have depression don't really understand the experience, and I include myself in this category. I also realized how much, for example, my mother sank deeper and deeper into depression and dementia toward the end of her life, and I just didn't quite realize it since I was so close to her. I now have a very dear friend who is going through a divorce, and he is deeply depressed. It's embarrassing to hear friends in our circle say, "Just get laid, dude!" Um, overly simplistic and it just doesn't work that way--I now understand based on the comments I have read from contributions here on Metafilter. So search and read up.

With your introspection and insight and compassion, I think you could get a perspective on Tom's reality, continue to identify and enjoy the valuable parts of your relationship, and learn some useful guidelines to make your own work life more enjoyable. Good luck, and I hope this is helpful.
posted by effluvia at 11:57 AM on September 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

"Well why don't you quit, then?"
posted by rhizome at 12:12 PM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would be tempted to say something like "grow up" or "don't be so dramatic". These kind of responses are not productive.

Separate yourself and stay grounded in your peace. Conditions cannot be just so and people will not always cooperate. People will complain and we don't have to allow complaining to rattle us. You can still be Tom's friend, of course and even ask him how he is.

It's not what's happening, it's how you respond.

Maybe he'll be happier and find another job, maybe he won't. Maybe he'll stop complaining, maybe he won't. Instead of reacting and allowing his complaining to bother you, observe and respond in a kind way and remember that his behavior is out of your control. If you must say something, you might say, "I'm sorry you're unhappy in your job."
posted by Fairchild at 12:19 PM on September 27, 2014

So glad the Shamu article was suggested, and it's similar to Don't Feed The Bears. Tom has been rewarded for complaining - reduced workload, sympathy, other things. Don't reward him any more. What gets rewarded gets repeated. Attention is a form of reward. Reward him with attention and positive responses to non-complain-y behavior.

One option - sit down with Tom, and ask him to be specific about what makes him miserable. Ask him to name work experiences he liked. Is there a way to create some opportunities for him to enjoy work? Maybe he likes learning new things, maybe he likes being with people, or away from people. Not reducing workload or things he doesn't like, but analyzing what has made him less unhappy in the past.

Yes, tell him he's a buzzkiller and ask him to give it a rest, then ignore it and reduce opportunities for him to vent. Instead of How are you, try How was your weekend, How are the kids/ dogs/ ferrets, Did you see Grimm/ Downton/ Dr. Who last night. If he's really negative about everything, refer him to a therapist and/ or the company EAP (Employee Assistance Program). He may be horribly depressed.
posted by theora55 at 12:29 PM on September 27, 2014

Instead of greeting Tom with "how are you?" ask Tom, "did you hear the one about...?" and tell him a new terrible joke every day. Or ask him what he thinks of the latest xkcd, or ask him if he knows the definition of the word of the day. Basically, start in immediately on a topic that you find mildly interesting and that doesn't require him to talk about himself.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 12:30 PM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Could you change your way of thinking about Tom? Sometimes people who are this grumpy (if they are also intelligent and knowledgeable) are, to me, sort of comically, delightfully grumpy? I used to work with a guy who was like this and after a while I found that hearing about yet another of the sheer number of things he hated to be pretty entertaining because it was just too much.
posted by citron at 1:14 PM on September 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

Ask stuff like "how was your weekend" or "how was that sushi place you were going to try last week" or "how is your mom" rather than "how are you."

And yeah, if he starts on work anyway, just brush it off. "Eh, I've had worse, it's not so bad here." Change subject.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:44 PM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah I mean, it depends on your personality types, but I think comical overreaction (like, "yes, god it's the worst, every day I pray for a meteor to wipe out civilization on our benighted planet") or deadpan snark a la "want to borrow a knife?" above are better bets than relentless positivity. If he's like some people I know, he may take that kind of cheery bubbliness as a personal challenge.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:59 PM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is he depressed? Are you good enough friends to address that? If someone repeatedly told me they wanted to die or similar, I'd be seriously inquiring about their safety. I am assuming that there's something about his tone or demeanor that leads you to not take that kind of thing seriously, and I respect that, but really--it's a win/win to take it seriously. It might actually keep him from complaining if he realizes he is coming across as pathologically unhappy. Or, if he is genuinely depressed, he might really need someone to reach out.
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:05 PM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd totally call him on his bullshit.

He: I'd rather be dead than work here.
Me: Yet you come in every day. So climb down off the cross and help me with the filing.

Don't do his work for him, don't humor him and don't invite him to whine and borchke about how terrible it all is.

I would also say, "Tom, you may not know it, but you're a total buzzkill. Yeah, this isn't Job Charming, but it is a good gig and your constant bitching is a real drag. If you hate it that much, do us all a favor and find something else. If you're just trying to make conversation, how 'bout them Dawgs?"

Really, he may be totally unaware, his bitching may just be what passes for wit in his world. Disabuse him of this immediately.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:20 PM on September 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

"I'd rather be dead than work here."

To a non-friend:
"But too lazy to find somewhere else, huh? That must be quite a dilemma."

To a friend:
"Dude. I work here too, remember? I get it. Can we lay off of the dead horse and just make the best of it? Save it for impressing the new kids."
posted by ctmf at 2:57 PM on September 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

Stop asking Tom how he is and stop interacting with him about anything that isn't work-related. Say "good morning" and keep it at that.

If he is a good friend, maybe you can just make it clear he is affecting you. "I know you hate your job, but it brings me down when you talk about how bad our company is. I don't want to prefer being dead to working here. That's fine if you feel that way, but I really want to be positive and make the best of working here." After you have that talk, and if he says something negative again, you just have to disengage and end the conversation immediately. He'll catch on.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:56 PM on September 27, 2014

I used to have people I considered to be very good friends who were also chronic complainers, like your Tom. It turns out, we weren't truly friends, at least not by the way I measure friendship. Instead, I was a convenient, reliably sympathetic ear to them. Once I began pushing back and shutting down their complaining, it quickly became apparent that they were unwilling and unable to respect my boundaries, or to negotiate new, mutually-agreeable ones. The friendships ended.

I bring this up because I wonder if Tom might not really be such a great friend; and if perhaps an underlying concern you might have is, if you push back or insist that he not complain about work so much, you'll have to face an uncomfortable truth about your relationship with him.

Really good friends are able to talk about these types of things, and resolve them, or part ways amicably. Tom sounds more like an annoying co-worker than very good friend. Perhaps if you view him in that light, his behavior will feel les personally affronting, and you will feel more free to tell him that it's not OK for him to disrupt and distract you, his co-worker, with his over-the-top complaints.
posted by nacho fries at 6:13 PM on September 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

"you're harshing my mellow"
posted by WeekendJen at 9:48 AM on September 29, 2014

Gosh, how have you avoided STFU? I know I felt better when I said it and I have worked with folks like this but that rather be dead thing makes me nervous. Might be worth finding out if he plans to go postal on all of you.
posted by OhSusannah at 9:20 PM on September 29, 2014

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