Dear Prudence: Emily Yoffe gives advice with The Gist’s Mike Pesca on workplace drama.

What Do You Do With a Co-Worker Who’s Giving You the Cold Shoulder?

What Do You Do With a Co-Worker Who’s Giving You the Cold Shoulder?

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July 29 2015 2:41 PM
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“If You’ve Got a Good Solution, I’m Going to Steal It for a Future Answer.”

Dear Prudence and The Gist follow up with “Creeped Out,” a letter writer with an unfriendly co-worker.

Photo illustration by Slate. Illustration by Charlie Powell.

Photo illustration by Slate. Illustration by Charlie Powell. Photo by Lisa Larson-Walker.

Emily Yoffe of Slate’s Dear Prudence column doesn’t typically call back her letter writers to give them advice. But on the July 24 episode of The Gist, she did. The following is a transcript of the conversation. Listen to the full podcast here.

Mike Pesca: But first, it’s the return of “Dear Prudie,” wherein Slate’s advice columnist and I read a letter, and each of us offers advice. The advice is going to conflict, and you just might realize why one of us is a professional advice columnist, and the other one is a guy who just said something pretty unkind about Samuel Alito.

Pesca: Emily Yoffe writes the “Dear Prudence” column for Slate. And what she does is, she gives people advice. Now usually on this show, we do post-“Prudence” impact statements. She has given the advice, we call up the letter writer, and figure out how the advice landed. Not today. We’re going to give the advice—and then maybe in some other format, some sort of sub-Gist—subreddit of sub-Gist—there will be the post-“Prudence” impact statement to this thing.

But for now, Emily Yoffe is here. Hello, Emily.

Emily Yoffe:  Hi, Mike.

Pesca: Hi. And before we call up our person, I think we should read the letter.

Yoffe: Sure. I’m going to depend a lot on you for a response for this letter—

Pesca: All right.

Yoffe: —because I—it’s a workplace letter.

Pesca: Mm-hmm.

Yoffe: I, for many reasons, work alone, and only deal with a neurotic dog all day. So, let me read this letter.

“Dear Prudence: I work for a small company in an even smaller department. About a month ago, ‘Kathy’ started acting very chilly toward me—not greeting me, responding very dully to questions I asked, finally ignoring me. I asked her if she was angry with me, and she said no. The behavior continued. And so I sent an email, again asking if I had done something to upset her. She didn’t respond.

A few days later, I asked her again in person what was going on. She gave a very disingenuous excuse about my not updating a contact list.”

Pesca: Has your dog ever done that, Emily?

Yoffe: My dog is next to me right now, and she might blow if I don’t continue patting her.

Pesca: OK.

Yoffe: “I told her that it would be very difficult to work together if she kept behaving this way. I eventually told her boss—our boss—who was at a loss.

We are gearing up to start the biggest project in our company’s history, and communication and teamwork will be vital. I’m beginning to get creeped out by this. It seems immature, pathologically passive aggressive, and makes me think she’s unstable. She sits three feet away from me. What can I do to protect myself? We do not have an HR department, and I don’t want to talk to the boss again. Help. Signed, Creeped Out.”

Pesca: Hmm. I’ve got a lot of thoughts from my various years of non-dog-related co-working. But what do you think? What do you think of Creeped Out?

Yoffe: You’re not the crazy co-worker, are you, Mike?

Pesca: No, I’m the one who requires a nice scratch behind my ears, and then I’ll tap my toe, and that’ll be fine.

Yoffe: If this is as described—and, you know, we don’t have Kathy’s side of this—this is very bizarre, and does indicate something quite wrong with this colleague who sits a few feet away, who, when asked directly and politely, “Hey, what’s going on?” “Oh, nothing. You didn’t update a contact list”—that’s false. And it utterly is passive aggressive, no matter what the cause may be.

And it could be everyone gets that Kathy’s gone off the rails, or Kathy could be spreading terrible rumors about Creeped Out for some reason. And, you know, it’ll make her life more difficult. And, again, she’s got no HR. The boss has been ineffectual. What do you do?

Pesca: So much depends on what the truth is with Creeped Out, and not just her perception of the truth. But if this was a friend or a loved one talking to me, and I knew for a fact that friend or loved one is a fine, decent, normal, wonderful person, I would say, “You got to get past it.”

Not everyone has to like you. If it’s not affecting the work, she—your co-worker—and it stinks that you’re in a department of three, and one-third of that three—in fact, your only peer—is not giving you anything except some sort of robotic countenance—but that’s life, and that’s work. And you could try to change your job, but she doesn’t have to be nice. If there’s no effect other than the social effect—I mean, if the work’s getting done—just have to deal with it.

I mean, some people—I’ve dealt with—I’m an effusive person; this may shock you. I’ve dealt with co-workers who just are—it turns out this one person was very shy, and it took a while to get to know, but I said to myself, “I’m not going to get a ‘hello’ in the morning. And unless I engage said person, said person will not engage me back.” And I had other co-workers to turn to, and it didn’t affect the work. But at first, it bothered me. Then I compartmentalized it and went on.

Yoffe: All right. But that seems slightly different from this dilemma. She doesn’t say, “Look, I have a co-worker who’s a little odd and not very friendly.” She says there was some precipitating something. She had a normal relationship with this person, and now it’s turned bizarre. If you, you know, ask a co-worker, “Hey, what’s going on?” “Nothing”—keeps going on. You sent an email: “You know, you seem upset with me. What’s the problem?” No response.

You sit feet from each other, and clearly something has happened. I think that’s very disturbing, especially in an extremely small environment, where you have to be constantly interacting, and this person is trying very hard to avoid you.

Pesca: Luckily, in this format, we can call Creeped Out and find out a little more.

Creeped Out: Hello?

Pesca: Hello. Are you Creeped Out?

Creeped Out: I am.

Pesca: Wow, that’s weird. That’s a weird question to ask and answer. I’m glad you said it right.

Creeped Out: Hi, Emily.

Yoffe: Hi, Creeped.

Pesca: So, we got your letter, and we’ve been bandying it about. But you wrote it a couple weeks ago. You want to update us at all? Any new facts have emerged?

Creeped Out: Well, things got a little worse from when I originally wrote the letter. I think when I first wrote the letter, the woman in question was just ignoring me. And then she started to be openly hostile to me.

Yoffe: How did that manifest itself?

Creeped Out: It really—it happened at a meeting of about 15 people. And she made sort of a loud scoffing noise. I don’t know. She was wondering why I was at the meeting when our mutual boss had asked me to attend the meeting. And she was kind of like, “Why are you here?” and, you know, made kind of a nasty noise.

So, after that, I talked to our boss for the second time. I had talked to her once before, and it was clear that she hadn’t talked to my colleague. So, I talked to my boss a second time. And she scheduled a meeting for the three of us, but we didn’t talk about any of the issues I’ve been having with her.

And then in the past—I would say—two weeks, I just started being overly friendly, and overly chatty, and smiling, and greeting her every time I saw her.

And now she—it’s kind of as if the whole episode didn’t happen.

Pesca: You killed her with kindness. I didn’t think that worked.

Creeped Out: I did. You know, I’m not even that interested in having a friendship with her or anything, but, really, I was creeped out. Things couldn’t stay the way they were, and my boss wasn’t really managing any of it. So, I had to do something, and confronting her didn’t work. I did that a few times.

Yeah, I just—I killed her with kindness.

Yoffe: I love it. I mean, this is so great, I’m going to suggest this right and left. And it must be hard to do, but how did you arrive at this genius solution?

Creeped Out: It was clear to me that there really wasn’t any other solution. I mean, I had responded by being aloof, and, you know, and that got sort of progressively chillier and chillier until there was, you know, like, a palpable hostility between us. And I just couldn’t work like that.

And she also went on vacation, which may have contributed to her being in a better mood. I think she went on a date, which she hadn’t done in a long time.

Yoffe: Maybe medication adjustment?

Creeped Out: Maybe.

Pesca: So, I guess I’m going to say I was wrong. I said to—that you should just compartmentalize this, and know not everyone could like you. And if it didn’t really affect the business, then your satisfaction at work—no, I’m not minimizing it—you try to find a way to ignore it.

But you had a better strategy, and now your life is more pleasant as a result. So, what the hell do I know?

Creeped Out: I don’t know if I would’ve been able to ignore it.

Yoffe: Mike, look, not everyone is as delightfully as oblivious as you are. So, you know, this kind of thing can be very painful. You know, Creeped is talking about—when you’re getting ready for work in the morning, and you have this pit of dread—it’s like junior high school and the lunch table. Oh my God, every day, am I going to go through this misery because someone’s targeting me?

You know, you’re not just dealing with someone who’s odd. You’re dealing with someone who is dissing you. And as you describe at the meeting, “What are you doing here?” I mean, that’s just weird.

Pesca: Yeah, she seems terrible. But you know what it is? It’s—I have—whatever you want to call it—a sense of ego or just this certainty that, well, it’s not me; I know it’s not me. And, you know, it’s hard for—maybe not everyone has that.

Creeped Out: No, I had that, too. I knew that it wasn’t me.

Pesca: I’ll also say there is a special place in our hall of infame or discredit—your boss. I mean, your boss did nothing about this.

Yoffe: But you know what? I’ll tell you, from the letters I get about the boss, that’s a very frequent response.

Pesca: Was it a good idea to bring the boss into this, do you think, Emily?

Yoffe: Well, Creeped did the right thing by trying repeatedly, in a very calm, straightforward way, to deal with this herself. That’s always the first thing. I get a lot of letters: Something happened. I ran right to HR.

I’ve talked to a lot of employment lawyers and HR people. You know, unless it’s something egregious—someone is threatening you, et cetera—you’re supposed to try to work out workplace issues yourself first. You escalate it when you can’t get anywhere. So, I think in the circumstance, yes, Creeped tried to do the right thing and deal with it, but it was becoming ridiculous.

Pesca: Well, Creeped Out, I want to thank you for emailing us at first—and, also, for just being a more generally positive, happy, and aggressively effusive person than I could muster in myself.

Thanks a lot. I’m glad it’s working out for you.

Yoffe: Thanks.

Creeped Out: Thank you.

Pesca: Emily, I just wanted to note that this segment where we give someone advice, and it helps their life—that it really didn’t, it turns out.

Yoffe: We’re pathetic. We didn’t know what to do. But I—it was very instructive for me, because she had great advice. Really, it is a really good idea—just steel yourself, put on that smile, ignore the psychodrama, and try to make it go away. And this is a great demonstration that it can work. It doesn’t mean it always will work, but I learned a lot from her.

Pesca: Well, Emily Yoffe is “Dear Prudence.” And let me just put this out, Gist listener—if you email us, Emily might very well take on your conundrum, be it a workplace issue, a family dynamic gone wrong, affairs of the heart, anything scandalous. What else do you like, Emily?

Yoffe: That covers the waterfront, yeah.

Pesca: And just please, in the future, don’t solve your own problems; wait for us. Things could go horribly wrong.

Yoffe: No, because if you’ve got a good solution, then I’m going to steal it for a future answer.

Pesca: Emily’s email address for all her “Prudence” correspondence is prudence@slate.com. And if you specifically want to target your question for a future Gist segment, make your subject line Gist. And then we’ll know to bring it alive on the radio. Thank you, Emily.

Yoffe: Thanks, Mike.

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