How common is this cold company culture thing?
August 27, 2017 2:59 AM   Subscribe

I've worked for two months in a small ad agency. One aspect of the culture has me puzzled, and I wonder how common it is.

I'm one of the production artists. The job is fine and people are friendly enough inside the office. I take public transit to work, as do several other people, including one with whom I work quite closely.

There appears to be a convention among them that outside the office we're strangers. If I notice a coworker on transit in the morning, they don't acknowledge me, and I understood that I was not to acknowledge them. After work, three or four of us often end up at the bus stop. We get aboard and sit separately and nobody even says "good night" or "have a nice weekend" – we're strangers, even if we've worked together civilly all day.

I do understand the need to get away from work mode and stop feeling pressure to engage in chitchat, but it's a ten-minute bus ride to a subway station, hardly a burden.

Is this... strange? Till now I've either freelanced or worked in tiny studios where this issue never came up, so I'm having to learn company culture as a new factor in my life.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of people prefer not to be obliged to socialise with colleagues outside work. If the relationships with your colleagues are good during working hrs this is great. In my job people normally don't arrive and leave at the same time. But when people do leave together it is not unusual to have people drift apart on the way to the bus stop or station. They start to make calls and turn their attention to their personal life. It doesn't even seem cold to me, as long as they are perfectly friendly in the office, it's just compartmentalising. Try to frame it as opportunity to also start to do your own thing completely guilt free. You can now bring forward the daily call with your mother, listen to your podcast or language class or read Metafilter on your commute freeing up time later in your day. This is a good problem to have!
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:19 AM on August 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'd say it's a bit odd not to acknowledge each other at all on the commute. There's a few people who get the same (infrequent) train as me to work, and I either say hello or discreetly make an effort to avoid getting into their "must acknowledge acquaintance" space, and I think they do too.

Phrases like "anyway, I'll leave you some space" or "just got a few texts to send" or "I'm just popping to Tesco" all lubricate this.

If they're getting closer to actually blanking you when you do make an approach, I'd go for hoping that they acknowledge your presence once with a simple "good to see you on the commute" and then leave them alone forever more.
posted by ambrosen at 4:30 AM on August 27, 2017 [6 favorites]

It would help to know what country and city you live in to know how normal this is. Where I live this behavior would be very odd, people you know will always at least respond with a smile or at least a head nod but other places I've been are less visibly friendly.
posted by octothorpe at 4:37 AM on August 27, 2017

Part of this might be public-transit specific, too - I'll say hi to a coworker if I pass them on the street or run into them at Target, but if we're getting on the same train in the morning I am more likely to avid them so that neither of us feels tied down to a half-hour conversation folowed by a ten-minute walk to the office.
posted by mskyle at 4:47 AM on August 27, 2017 [10 favorites]

I worked in creative agencies for about nine years. I think that a lot of creative agencies have a high proportion of 'ambiverts', essentially introverted people who put on an extravert face for work.

When you combine that with the long hours and intensive effort that are rife in the industry, I think it's pretty common for people to want to do absolutely nothing work-related (including chatting with co-workers they might have just spend 10+ hours with) once they are out of the office. It certainly was for me. I had a lot of people I worked with who I liked just fine, but I didn't want to have ten minutes of desultory small talk with them at the start or end of a long day - I wanted to read my book/listen to my podcast and not think about work for those ten minutes. There were a few people who I worked with closely who I became genuine friends with, and who I absolutely would chat to in those circumstances, but they were a definite minority.

If you're really missing the small talk, you will probably need to a) be there longer than a couple of 2 months and b) make close friends with the people you work with, so you'll end up chatting because you want to. But as a rule, I'd say creative agencies are pretty draining places to work with a lot of closet introverts working in them, so small talk outside of work is pretty uncommon.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:50 AM on August 27, 2017 [8 favorites]

I'm not in your industry but in NYC this is normal-- especially in the morning, when most people aren't awake enough to be "on."

Ten minutes doesn't sound long, but what I'd be avoiding is someone trying to sit by me and talk for the entire ten. That's too long.

I think it's awkward and unnecessary to repeatedly greet the same people. If I said goodbye for the day at the office, I don't want to individually greet and then say good bye again to work people.

None of this is personal. I like my coworkers a lot and hang out with some of them.
posted by kapers at 5:37 AM on August 27, 2017 [6 favorites]

Also, depending on your location, commuting can be a slog and a battle.
posted by kapers at 5:38 AM on August 27, 2017

Years ago, I worked about 20 feet away from my best friend, whom I sometimes saw before and/or after work when we picked up our kids at the daycare center. Occasionally, we ended up on the train platform at the same time, but by mutual agreement, we did not ride together. "Train time" is for the transition to/from work and home.
posted by she's not there at 6:00 AM on August 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

The not sitting together on the bus seems normal to me, but not nodding and saying hi would be unusual around here.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:09 AM on August 27, 2017 [5 favorites]

In my experience, pretending you don't see each other is the solution for people who don't know how to nod and move on without chatting. I live in Boston and have pretended not to see coworkers who were nearby on public transit and have had that done to me (though I have also chatted with other coworkers at the same place). I think the reason is that no one wants to get stuck in long conversations, and no one feels confident in their ability to just say hi and politely separate, so they go this route.

It's possible that they are just as uncomfortable as you are with this system, and that a nod and "hey" and then looking back down at your book will be accepted gratefully. But it's also possible that they will then feel like they're supposed to chat with you, which is horribly awkward.

I will note, though, that if I ran into those same coworkers in a non-commuting context where we could easily move on (on the street on a Sunday morning), we would say hi before moving on. It's solely about not getting trapped in transit chit chat.
posted by gideonfrog at 6:59 AM on August 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

There appears to be a convention among them that outside the office we're strangers. If I notice a coworker on transit in the morning, they don't acknowledge me, and I understood that I was not to acknowledge them.

To me this is unusual. I've lived and worked in a small town, a small city, and a big city, and this would have been bizarre in any of those settings. Briefly acknowledging and then settling into a solitary headspace would be normal (except in the small town--good luck with that, but there was no public transit there, so), but pretending you didn't see the other person when you clearly did would be very odd.

After work, three or four of us often end up at the bus stop. We get aboard and sit separately

This would not seem strange to me.

and nobody even says "good night" or "have a nice weekend"

However, this complete fiction that you don't know the other people, not even a nod, would be weird.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:10 AM on August 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've experienced this, but on a smaller scale rather than as an entire company culture. It's sort of how I prefer to operate before and after work; nothing against my coworkers, I'm just super introverted. I will even deliberately wait a few minutes after a coworker leaves for the day before leaving myself, to avoid putting them in the position of having to engage with or avoid me.

The thing about "it's only a ten-minute bus ride" is that ten minutes is a pretty long time to carry on a conversation (or sit quietly, awkwardly feeling like you need to), and there's no graceful way out. And it's ten minutes every day. That gets old fast. It's better not to start in the first place.

Like others point out, I'm much more likely to say hi to a coworker, and even chat for a little bit, if we bump into each other in a one-off, unexpected place.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:18 AM on August 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

In NYC, I would find this odd. You wouldn't necessarily want to chat with a coworker while waiting for the train or bus or whatever. Sometimes if they are far enough away you might pretend not to see them. But a nod or something as you pass them--that is, acknowledgement, not socializing--would be normal, and, to me, odd if omitted.
posted by praemunire at 11:40 AM on August 27, 2017

In NYC with a multitude of coworkers, there is usually at least one person on the train either to or fro work. Given the commute is usually an hour plus (summer of hell etc) I pretend that I don't notice people since I have been in many situations where I had to talk to someone for like, 45 minutes after spending 10-12 hours with them, and it's way too much. Caveat: I feel like a friendly nod would be better and I am deeply burnt out and exhausted.

I feel like it would be weird to not nod/smile etc. in most situations like this, though, overall in the US.
posted by love2potato at 1:16 PM on August 27, 2017

I work for an ad agency (in NYC) and for the most part when I run into colleagues outside work we have a freindly chat.
posted by eustacescrubb at 6:42 PM on August 27, 2017

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