Coworker's pet causing me stress
August 16, 2018 10:50 AM   Subscribe

My coworker has a pet as decoration on their desk in our office that is living in inadequate conditions. It's making it hard for me to concentrate because I feel sorry for it. Is there anything I can do without offending my coworker or making waves?

The animal in question is a fish in a very small, unheated bowl. This type of fish requires a heated tank. It's doing a lot of "glass surfing" which many fish enthusiasts believe is a sign that the fish is stressed, bored and/or in too small of a tank. This fish should be in a 2.5 gallon tank at least.

I have a soft spot for aquarium fish and it really, really bothers me to see it living in these conditions.

The fish has the approval of management. I’m not particularly close with my coworker. They seem like a nice person but I’m also guessing they would be offended if I were to approach them and say, hey, your fish needs a bigger tank, etc. If I were to leave an anonymous care sheet, I’m guessing they would also know it was me (we work in a small office and I’m the only person who would do that sort of thing, I think). I’ve even thought of just going out and purchasing a set up that would be more appropriate, but then it would not fit so nicely on coworkers desk and again, they would probably be offended.

Is there anything I can do to help the fish without alienating anyone? I should also mention that there are security cameras, so there will be no daring late-night rescues of the fish.

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm totally sympathetic to your situation, this would really bother me too. Talk to your coworker, it's literally the only thing you can do. Leaving an anonymous care sheet is very passive aggressive and might feel kind of hostile to your coworker. Just be really friendly and cool about it and explain that you know a lot about fish, would be super willing to help get them a better setup, and emphasize how uncomfortable the fish probably is right now. If you're not that tight with your coworker, the possibility of this weirding them out a little doesn't' seem like a big risk to take.
posted by cakelite at 10:54 AM on August 16, 2018 [14 favorites]

You know your coworker better than we do, but I know I'd be more offended if someone purchased a whole new set up for me and handed it to me without a conversation. More weirded out than offended.

However, if a coworker I didn't know well came to me and said "hey dude, can I give you a bit of humble advice about those sickly looking plants you have on your windowsill?", I'd probably be appreciative, especially if they said they'd chip in and help me buy whatever plant food or soil would fix the issue.

Longer response shorter: talk to your coworker about your legitimate concerns for the fish. There's nothing offensive about that.
posted by RajahKing at 10:57 AM on August 16, 2018 [10 favorites]

If you're on friendly, but not close terms, I'd find a good time, approach the coworker, and ask in a friendly way about the fish in general (because it's clearly unusual and a conversation starter). And once they've responded and know I'm interested, I'd probably say something about, "Oh, yeah, hey, sometimes ___________ do better in tanks that are a little bigger. You see the way the fish is [description of glass surfing]? It can be a sign they'd like a bigger tank. I've got one lying around if you want it, along with a heater."

(It may be a lie that you've got one lying around with a free heater, but white lies like that never hurt anyone.)
posted by joyceanmachine at 10:58 AM on August 16, 2018 [48 favorites]

Along the lines of cakelite's suggestion, if you feel strongly about this....Be very excited to see the fish and ask a few questions (initially to gauge your coworker a tad - are they happy to talk about it? Excited? Randomly picked it out of a pet store).

As a second step (at a different time), mention something like "A friend happened to give me an entire fish setup with large tank and [something the person might be into - a decoration?]. I thought it might be a cool home for [fish name]. Would you be into that?"

Then listen to the response. If the person is enthusiastic/eager, bring in a tank. Obviously this requires a bit of your own $, but if you feel that passionate about it and its a better home for the fish - win-win.

You can have other conversations about fish care along the way, but ... to break the barrier and get the fish into better care/be nonconfrontational, etc.

Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 11:02 AM on August 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Be blunt and friendly. "Hey, coworker, I noticed your fish was glass surfing the other day and I'm a little worried about its health. I'm kind of an aquarium nerd and I've had $fish_species before [nb. it's OK to lie a little about your direct relevant experience] and they really need a heater and a 2.5 gallon tank. I have some extras lying around if you want them [nb. as joyceanmachine said, this is also OK to lie about], I'd be happy to help out, I love having fish around the office and I really want to see $name_of_mistreated_fish thrive!!"

Don't do the thing where you feign interest in the fish and then later "discover" that it needs a better setup, your coworker may be stupid about fish but they probably have enough people skills to see through weird shit like that. It's OK to care about the welfare of animals. Go for the direct approach. They might get defensive about it, but at least you'll have done what you could.
posted by prize bull octorok at 11:13 AM on August 16, 2018 [69 favorites]

If the coworker is generally a genial and friendly sort, what I would suggest is to act enthusiastic and say their fish is great and make it a whole-office pet and offer to buy a great setup that they can help you pick out!!!

Starting in with being worried makes it a little tough for them to accept the situation. Just make it a fun project and they'll be into it.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 11:21 AM on August 16, 2018

I recently met someone who told me how they lost their bet betta at work.... he jumped out of the bowl over the weekend. At least warn her to put a screen over the bowl.
posted by bq at 11:24 AM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'd go to management and ask them to reconsider their approval and fall on their sword on their own, without pointing to you.

Sentient things aren't decorations. You aren't alone in being horrified by this.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:28 AM on August 16, 2018 [8 favorites]

Oh uh if this is a betta, good luck. People are so acclimated to keeping them in tiny decorative bowls you're probably going to have a real hard time selling your coworker on a full heated tank setup. Doesn't mean you shouldn't try, but that's gonna be a tough one.

Definitely bring up the screen thing at least.
posted by prize bull octorok at 11:31 AM on August 16, 2018 [6 favorites]

Yea, I mean mentioning that you're a fish nerd isn't a bad start to this because I'd say 99% of people who get decorative beta fish vases aren't fish nerds. Of that population you have to wonder what percent are assholes who aren't open to gentle offerings of advice regarding fish care/behavior. That's your shot. Keeping it civil and chill are going to go in your favor here.

"Hey Deskmate, I wanted you to know that my friend had a beta fish in a vase just like that that died when it jumped out. Someone told them, after the fact, that a screen was a good idea and that a bigger tank was an even better one. I don't want your fish to die, he's fun to look at." or some such...

Anything above and beyond (i.e. sponsoring a bigger tank, offering a co-habitation betafish, or to buy screens) is gravy that only you can know if it's worth your while/inclination to do.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:29 PM on August 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

I imagine you ought to decide right now how far you are willing to take this. I think most people have little to no concern for fish well-being, and success is unlikely.
posted by turkeybrain at 12:41 PM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

They probably just don't know. Most people think of fish as kind of cool, pretty, animal-plants. They don't know why the fish is moving in any particular way until it's not moving and then it's just "huh it hasn't moved in a while maybe it's dead."
Just tell them in a non-judgmental way, assuming they don't know about fish needs and behavior. Seriously == unless this person is really defensive they'll know they have to swallow or deal with any irrational feelings your comment causes.
If someone said to me, "Hey I notice the fish is doing BLAH, I'm really into my hobby of fish and this means it's stressed and needs more space," I'd maybe feel for a second "Hey! I'm not a bad person so don't make me feel like one!" but I'd say "Oh really? Thanks for letting me know."
Then -- they might or might not act on the info. If they don't, you've done what you could. Then you'll have to figure out again how to manage the stress of seeing it there...
posted by nantucket at 1:06 PM on August 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

You could also ask a manager or supervisor, or someone from HR for help. Ask the third party to set up a meeting with your office mate, and have them attend.

Then, in the meeting, explain that "you were nervous to bring it up, but..."

Use "I" statements, such as "When I see the fish, I feel disturbed / sad."

Maybe that will work...
posted by JamesBay at 2:28 PM on August 16, 2018

If you are feeling very optimistic about your job and the people there you could try for the best case scenario, which would be: Talk to management about this, say you want to help and here is your knowledge and proof as to why the current setup is bad. Say that you have a good plan and explain it, with prices for the tank setup, placement for that stuff and the related supplies so that the person can still fully view the fish but they aren't sacrificing further work space for it (so like, a suggested office layout change) and that you want to do that work. Then, because this is a happy scenario, management talks to coworker, says "we did some more research after your request and found out that this fish has different needs. we love animals and want to make a healthy setup for your dude there. it turns out [anonymous] has fish experience and they had a great plan." They explain your plan to coworker, you help coworker set it up. Coworker knows to come to you for further fish questions, management gets to look really caring and individually-focused, the entire office gets to observe a healthy fish.

But in real life this is going to be hard. I kind of think though, why not try for the best case scenario? If your work environment is so tenuous that your job would suffer because you expressed concern for fish welfare I kind of think that's a sign of an underlying problem.
posted by Mizu at 2:54 PM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Is it possible to have the fish relocated to a common area? If part of the issue is the footprint of the tank on your co-worker's desk, you might have a hard time convincing them to switch to a larger tank. However, if you move the fish to a common area, you can then split care with the fish - feeding, tank changes, that sort of thing - and make the change more appealing by offering to split the labour required to take care of it.
posted by Jilder at 3:45 PM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Before you comment, make sure the person knows that you regard them as a nice human, and that you care about their happiness. Extend your empathy toward that person first, and make it so that they will not hear your thoughts as an attack, but as a friendly but sincere communication about yourself. Establish a good relationship. Don't be fake, don't make an elaborate friendship trap, but even a pre-ambling sentence or two that shows you see them as a whole person can make the difference.

Then, when you do comment, you can frame it as "a lot of people don't know this, and I totally get that these guys are sold in tiny bowls a lot, but it really bothers me because it stresses them and makes them very unhappy. When they hang out right against the glass, that's because they're feeling X or they want to swim just a bit more but they can't. A fish has no other way to tell you he's unhappy -- he can't yell or cry or even have facial expressions -- so we have to notice little cues like this to know he's not enjoying his life as much as he should."

I think the root problem is that people just can't perceive the unhappiness of others unless they're trained to it; you can do this here, if you're very very careful.
posted by amtho at 4:07 PM on August 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

It's not your fish, so there's not really much you can do. You may believe this is animal cruelty, but management and/or the fish's owner may disagree. If you're posting here for advice, it implies that you already know you work in a place where there's no easy/safe way to tell someone else what to do with their stuff.

Is one fish worth compromising your career trajectory?
posted by krisjohn at 8:12 PM on August 16, 2018

This may not be practical depending on their desk setup (and it isn't really ideal in most cases) but they do make long narrow tanks that maybe an option that would increase volume while still playing nicely with their desk setup.
posted by Mitheral at 9:06 PM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Personally I would be a lot more stressed and offended by some elaborate nicey-nice speech than by a casual "hey, windykites, no offense but your fish is sick. Those kind need a bigger tank with heat". I've had coworkers go overboard with trying not to offend me over relatively minor things that are easily addressed, and it just pisses me off. I don't like having my time or emotional energy wasted, and I would find a lot of the approaches here very patronising. We're both adults, just politely say what you mean.
posted by windykites at 6:40 AM on August 17, 2018 [9 favorites]

windykites: That makes sense as long as you don't feel vulnerable to their judgment of you. Whether that's because you have a reasonable amount of self confidence, you don't really care what they think, or because you have enough status that their opinions won't have a real bearing on your life, you're in a different position than a lot of people.
posted by amtho at 8:56 AM on August 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

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