I decided I’m split 50-50 on this issue.
Do you stay out of arguments that you aren’t a part of, even if it happens right in front of you in such an insulting manner [see below] or do you stand up and intervene to preserve law and order?
Here I am at the office and usually I eat my lunch at my desk, while surfing the internet or flipping through an issue of any one of the numerous Conde Nast publications – GQ, Portfolio, Details, etc. It makes for interesting viewing, as the less-privileged, clock-bound serfs from other business units walk by, muttering all sorts of insults under their breath about me and how I have it so seemingly easy. Today however I decided to saunter over to the large cafeteria and harass the natives. Its a sport, and today is Friday so all my contacts at client companies had gone home for the weekend by lunch time.
I spotted Alena* the young Greek receptionist sitting at a table with Lilly, the short lady who did cleaning work around the office and took care of the staff lunchroom’s coffee supplies. We all respected her by default. She’s a hardworking, middle-aged, petite Albanian lady. Speaks in European / Italian-accented broken English but nice to a fault. There is literally nothing about her for you to dislike or pick on.
As I sat down at the adjacent table, slouching slightly in the chair and propping up one foot on the other knee, Alena asked me if I had heard about anymore lay-offs and cutbacks. Ah yes, time for the usual water-cooler variety of gossip. I told her I had, that some of the sales directors in one of the finance divisions at the corporate HQ were gone. No two-week notice, no advance warning. The guillotine had come down and heads were rolling on the floor.
Alena gasped as she recognized some of the names I had mentioned. “But he was such a nice guy!! How could they let him go?”
I shrugged and rolled my eyes. “That’s the nature of the beast. We’re a public company. Shareholders want results. They don’t care who gets fired.”
Lilly asked about others who had recently been let go and if there were any more cuts coming. I said of course, more are expected. We ain’t done trimming the fat just yet.
At this point some black girl – maybe Jamaican, who knows – who was sitting at another table got up and walked over full of pomp and self-inflated importance, stiletto heels clicking sharply on the hard floor.
Lets call her Queen B.
I had seen her before a few times, working in a division that serviced a large Canadian bank. Once, I had laughed at her when she was walking around wearing her designer shades inside the office. I asked her pointedly in front of other co-workers if the shades were genuine or were they imitation? It’s a loaded trick question – if the person replies they’ll get publicly torched either way. I had tried to give her the benefit of doubt by asking her if it was because she couldn’t get a proper glare screen for her monitor. But that incident had bruised her ego badly enough that she could barely hide the contempt on her face whenever I was around. I didn’t mind; I knew I could dish out far more than she had the ability to take. So the feeling was probably mutual.
Fast forward to the present scene.
Queen B comes and stands directly between my table and Alena’s. Directly between me and Lilly, disrupting the conversation. No permission asked to interrupt, no apologies given. Not even a glance indicating the same.
Queen B in her heels, is clearly at a towering 5’9 or so above Lilly who is seated. And even when Lilly is walking around in her non-slip Ecco work shoes, she’s maybe 5’0. Without any greetings or pleasantries, she started interrogating Lilly about some incident earlier in the day. Apparently, earlier in the day Queen B had complained to Lilly that one of the vending machines had swallowed her five-dollar bill and given no change when she pressed the change button. If this was true, then Lilly’s job required that she post a notice indicating that the machine was out of order, and thus forbidding further use until repair. At that time, Lilly had walked over and inserted her own five-dollar bill to commit her own due diligence and test the machine. She pressed the change button and the machine dutifully spit out change as expected. That had apparently insulted Queen B, so here she was grilling Lilly about those actions and the attendant motives of the same, charging Lilly of trying to portray her as a liar or scammer. And to Lilly’s credit, there were a few cheapskates in the office who had tried all manner of attempts, including some bordering on outright extortion, of getting their money back from the vending machines or their managing vendor. She had no choice but to double-check each complaint.
Queen B was growing increasingly agitated. Her body posture gradually became more aggressive, leaning forward with one hand on her hips and the other hand stabbing an accusing finger in the air towards Lilly. Her questions grew more and more accusatory; and to which she demanded black-and-white “Yes” or No” answers. Her voice kept rising until she was screaming at Lilly, who in response was asking Queen B to cease talking in such a manner or else she would go complain to Queen B’s manager. There were probably 20 other people in the cafeteria watching the ruckus, and more co-workers coming in for their own lunch. In the meantime, Lilly was able to maintain her composure and voice, while explaining procedure for such incidents. I exchanged looks with Alena, trying to figure out what sparked this seemingly random outburst. Alena rolled her eyes, shook her head, and kept listening to the exchange. I remained slouched in my chair with an amused look on my face and one eyebrow arched.
During the stellar, one-woman performance which had all the beauty of a reeking sewer drain in a filthy gutter, I contemplated several times about actually intervening. Initially my reaction was just to stand up and come between Queen B and Lilly, look her in the face and tell her to “take a number and get in line”, because in case she hadn’t noticed, I was the one currently talking to Lilly. Well … scratch that.
Then I thought about commenting loudly how “it must be that time of the month!” or maybe a “well, looks like SOMEONE’s surfing the red wave … eh boys?!” – remarks like that are usually guaranteed to cut real deep and make the target so publicly embarrassed that she’ll want to hide in a dark corner and just die. And if Queen B had redirected her pathetic venom on me, it would have been a simple matter of silencing her by reminding her who pays her salary [sales & marketing]. But again, I kept my peace. This show was after all, very amusing. It would provide plenty of fodder later on for office politics, drama, soap operas, and so on. The joker in me was asking: “… why kill perfectly good source material?”
As the temper tantrum continued unchecked, I knew I could have simply knocked out the entire hall with a deep, earth-shaking, incontestable command to “SHADDUP, SIDDOWN and LEARN SOME MANNERS!!” On my feet and with one arm extended, finger pointing to an empty chair. In the tense few seconds of locked eyeballs that would have followed, it would have been a game of brinkmanship that she knew she would have had a snowball’s chance in Hell of winning – being as it was that she was employed in an aging business unit that was a cost center, and I was working in a unit that was a profit center, the mechanics of it all would have boiled down real fast to rank. I report directly to a vice president, she reports to some lowly supervisor. Plain, cold, and simple political math that everyone knew like 1+1=2. If the HR folks got involved, she was expendable, I was not. Particularly given that she was the clear aggressor with so many witnesses present.
And yet I remained amused but calm, choosing to stay silent.
Queen B had finished her screeching and posturing. With a dramatic flourish of her arms, she stomped off. Without even looking at her direction, I mustered an extremely annoyed look on my face and began clapping my hands very slowly but loudly. With everyone still watching, I took out my wallet and gave Lilly a five-dollar bill to test the machine again. She took it and arose without a word and walked over to the machine. It worked perfectly, spitting out two $2 coins and a single $1 coin, which Lilly then collected and handed back to me.
Later, more developments were unvcovered – Queen B had stomped off to Laurie’s office, the HR rep. I’m guessing she wanted to pre-empt any visit by Lilly. Hmmm … sneaky. Or maybe she was rattled and wanted to spin her story to Laurie, who already knew of Queen B’s reputation. Lilly of course was called in as well to explain her side of the story, after which Laurie counseled everyone to calm. Queen B walked out of Laurie’s office and back to her area of the cubicle farm, proudly boasting that she had put Lilly “in her place”.
::: – ::: – ::: – :::
The oh-so agonizing quandary such incidents place me in, is as follows – what do you do?
You see one person clearly aggressing against another. Berating them in public, shouting and acting in an uncivilized manner, in a manner unbecoming of a gentleman, or of a lady, in this case. Add to that the obvious physical disparity – Queen B would have had much softer words and tone had Lilly been her size or taller – and it seems you have a cut and dry case of an office bully getting off by venting some steam on the little janitor lady. She wants to go on a power trip? Maybe I should have told her to stick her vitriolic tongue in an electrical socket and suck on it till she dropped dead.
Do you choose to stay out of such arguments because … ? It’s someone else’s problem? No need to get involved and make things worse? Not my problem? Are you afriad of being labeled as nosy?
Or do you stand up because you don’t want to be someone who was silent and complicit in the face of such improper behavior? What if you knew that a polite, firm rebuke would have no effect, and that the only way to get someone like Queen B to cease and desist from such future behavior was to publicly rip a strip off of her [or him] in front of your co-workers? I’m sure public humiliation in such a case has its benefits and most might even argue its justified, but then … aren’t you dragging yourself down to their level? In the defense of civility and workplace professionalism, are you willing to abandon civil behavior and resort to crass behavior … just to stop the same thing?
Where do you draw the line?
*all names have been changed for privacy.