Americans are afraid of confrontation because of our extreme national affinity for independence and because of our propensity to shoot and/or stab people for almost any reason.
Q: I was sitting in business class on Amtrak when the man behind me started speaking loudly on his cellphone. Not a two-minute call, either. His client at the other end of the line probably didn’t realize that his/her call was being broadcast. Once he hung up, I mentioned to him as nicely as possible that I heard every word and that he might want to use his phone in the cafe car, which was 40 feet away, so that those of us in the current car could work. He practically bit my head off and said there was no written rule that he had to be quiet. How do I deal with such inconsiderate people? — Middlebury, Vermont
A: Thanks to the wonder of loud talkers on public transportation, we have learned about staffing changes at media companies, about relationship disasters and about intrigue in government. I tend to transcribe as I listen. You never know when you’ll have a chance for blackmail or some hot live-tweet content!
But good for you for speaking up. Americans are afraid of confrontation because of our extreme national affinity for independence and because of our propensity to shoot and/or stab people for almost any reason. “Are you trying to tell me what to do?” is our base response to anyone requesting that we obey the simplest social norms. Suggesting someone do something is a completely normal thing in many places in the world! But on former Vice President Joe Biden’s beloved National Railroad Passenger Corp., this weirdo you encountered is entitled to feel affronted.
I don’t think any kind of nonviolent, non-naked, nondisgusting behavior is off limits on trains, no matter how sucky that behavior is. “Making noise with their mouths” is a thing that humans do by vocalizing or by chewing up plants and animals with their teeth. It’s awful, but here we are, trapped carting our brains around in these calcium and keratin sacks. I think you need better headphones. Come sit with me in the quiet car, where I type this column as gingerly as possible so as not to infuriate my fellow flesh monsters.
Ride the lightning
Q: I work in a school. Our tech support guy is awesome in every way: responsive, friendly, patient and highly competent. The only problem is that he douses himself with an obnoxious quantity of cologne. I don’t want him to feel embarrassed, but it might be in his best interest to know of his odorous offense. (Others in the building concur.) An anonymous letter might work but just seems too cowardly. By nature of his job, he is never in one place or around the same people for long periods of time. Should I just grin and bear it? He might be masking a natural odor that is even worse than the cologne. — New Haven
A: First, this is not his fault; it’s the fault of the Axe Industrial Complex. But to your question: The general cowardly way this is dealt with is in a mass office email, tacked on to some housekeeping: “Oh and by the way, some of us are more sensitive than others to smells, and the HVAC in here is not great, so please try to keep odors down.” The problem with that, I have found, is that everyone thinks you’re talking about someone else. “Glad you finally dealt with Joanna’s gross salads,” someone will thank you. “Good, maybe Dan will stop wearing those shoes that smell like burning road,” someone will confide. Your real target will elude you.
You could try a chat: “Hey, thanks so much for helping with this broken doodad, I really appreciate it. Hey, while I have you here, would it be OK if you wore less cologne in the office? We’re in small spaces. Anyway, what are you doing this weekend?”
But. I just tried saying that out loud (not in the quiet car), and there’s no way that I could possibly utter it to someone’s off-gassing face, because I’m a wuss like all of us. (Except the loud talkers on Amtrak!) What has society done to us? We’re all wandering around unable to ask for the simplest things.
I do think writing a note makes it too fraught — getting an anonymous card would make me paranoid to the point of considering quitting. So you will have to say it out loud. Role-play it at home with a willing partner first. Maybe it’ll be a turning point for you and you’ll become a new person, unfettered by fear of confrontation!
Q: IN A RECENT COLUMN THERE WAS A LETTER ABOUT A NASTY BOSS WHO, AMONG OTHER THINGS, “TYPES IN ALL CAPS.” I’VE BEEN TYPING IN ALL CAPS (AS EVIDENCED HERE), EVER SINCE I CAN REMEMBER. THE REASON? IT’S JUST EASIER TO SEE! I CAN CONFESS THAT IT GOT ME INTO TROUBLE MORE THAN ONCE AT THE OFFICE … BUT IT WAS UNINTENTIONAL. I’M 71 YEARS OLD NOW. IN MY PRIME I WAS ABLE TO TYPE 90 WORDS A MINUTE ON MY IBM ELECTRIC AND CAN PROBABLY STILL MAINTAIN THAT SPEED IF I REALLY NEEDED TO. WHAT I DON’T UNDERSTAND IS WHY “THE GENERATIONS” IMMEDIATELY THINK THAT IF YOU’RE TYPING IN ALL CAPS YOU’RE SHOUTING. WHY DON’T THEY LOOK CLOSER AND SEE THERE MAY BE ANOTHER REASON. WHO MADE THEM IN CHARGE? I WILL CONTINUE TO TYPE IN ALL CAPS AND SOMETIMES MAY PREFACE MY NOTES WITH THIS EXPLANATION. AND IF ANYONE DOESN’T LIKE IT … TOO BAD. — CLIFTON, N.J.
A: Time made “the generations” in charge. I don’t like it any more than you do, but neither has anyone ever. As an extreme-to-the-max member of Gen X, the Switzerland of generational warfare (Maybe more like Wakanda really? No one can see us from the outside, but secretly we’re a highly evolved society?), I already understand the agony of being henpecked by younger generations. Embrace your age and eccentricity! Caps it up! Love your work!
Work Friend is a cheeky New York Times advice column to help with careers, money and the sometimes grim, sometimes hilarious maze that is the contemporary office, from a rotating cast of advice-givers.