I saw some words die the other day.
I had a doctor’s appointment – but had forgotten when it was, so I walked down to the surgery to have a chat with the receptionist.
The slidey doors parted, and I strode up to the main desk.
Sometimes when we want something from someone we dehumanise them . “I need to know when my appointment time is,” – could have been the first thing I said – kind of like when people talk to the calender on their voice recognition phones.
But they weren’t phones, these two woman behind the desk. They were people. So I approached the desk, put a big smile on my face and said, “Hey, how are you? You alright?” – or something like that. I tried to engage with them as humans, before I engaged with them as receptionists.
What happened next is something that happens quite a lot. My words died. One woman said nothing, the other muttered “Yeah,” and then stared at me in a ‘what do you want’ kind of way.
This stuff scares the shit out of me!
It scares me when genuine warmth writhes and struggles in the air before falling to the floor – dead, because I know I’ve stumbled into a poisonous atmosphere.
And maybe you’re thinking, ‘”poisonous atmosphere, aren’t you being a bit melodramatic?” but I’m not, because people die in these poisonous atmospheres. I’ve died in them a few times.
The longest time I died was in an office job.
It was the kind of place where....
...you walked in and no-one said hello, so you just sat down at your desk in silence.
...people tried to intimidate you.
...the office politics were as tedious and messed up as... well... politics.
...people went to great lengths to judge or categorise, but made no effort to understand you.
...you couldn’t make a mistake without it being the end of the world.
...the clocks were watched so much, they become cursed and evil ghosts started to haunt them (probably).
Most of all it was boring. It was so boring, that it made everyone who worked there boring, and even when we went home we were boring. And the longer I worked there, the more boring I felt myself becoming.
My humanity was being stripped away from me. No-one acted like a human being, or treated me like one. And without my humanity, I was just left with a numb shadow of myself. The shadow went through the motions. It did its work, it talked to people, it took a break for lunch, but anyone could see that it wasn’t the real deal. There was no genuine originality, or spontaneity. The words spoken made no reference to my inner-passion, or my existential colour. I was lost.
It was like someone had stuck a hoover into my stomach, and all the brightness and flair was being sucked out. And it was being sucked out of the room as well, and everything was turning grey and pale under the fluorescent lights – even the people. I had died. It was all over.
It’s fucked up and it scares me.
And when I saw those receptionists I knew that they were in a poisonous atmosphere too, and that they were dead, just like I had been. Even my tiny interaction with them had killed me a little bit. Who knows how that atmosphere was able to happen. Who knows who let it in the door. I wanted to say, “quick run, there’s still time,” but that wouldn’t have worked.
Signs that the atmosphere is poisonous.
Know the warning signs and stay away: this works for all places, not just offices.
People treat you like shit.
People seem to think happiness is a limited resource we all have to share, and they hate it when other people have too much of it.
People’s default setting is to write off your ideas.
You’ll notice people’s voices have become flat or empty, like a soda that’s been left open too long. Also, lots of sighs. People can’t help but sigh.
Everyone is frowning, or glum looking.
You can tell a lot about a place by what people ask you.
Watch out for excessive questions about details: Where have you been? What have you been doing? What do you do? Have you done X? You know, the stuff you normally say as small talk as a way to get to big talk.
Big talk – meaning ideas and emotions – ‘have you ever wondered x’ ‘what do you think about y’ ‘how do you feel about z’ ‘do you reckon that x’ – These are proper questions; they scratch of the hard brittle shell, and dig out the real you – the real personality. When people aren’t interested in these kind of questions, it’s because they’ve died, and they don’t want to see you come alive. Get out!
Good luck, and be careful: I was lucky, I came back, but some people stay dead forever. Don’t let that happen to you.