I was reminded of my year in a cubicle this week as I’m moving from an office back to cubicle life again. I was less than fortunate to work in a tiny cubicle in 2005, for over a year. Provence it was not. I’m not sure if people realize it but cubicle life has a subversive subculture all its own. Ok that may be extreme but it does have strange quirks that are funny and beg to be written about. My personal definition of cubicle:/kyoobikel. n. The vealization of previously free range human beings. Vealize: v. To stuff or cram into a small space, to ensure efficiency and or tenderness. The cubicle is a small space that, like torture implements of days gone by, can be made smaller and smaller and smaller as cheap companies try to squeeze more bodies into an existing space instead of obtaining larger offices.
On my first day of work I was brought into the office and there before me, stretched out like a sea of grey on a rainy day, were dozens and dozens of nondescript cubicles. To quote Eddie Izzard, they were interesting in an extraordinarily boring way. I wondered how I would make it back to my own cubicle after lunch and wished I’d brought a sandwich from which I could at least make a bread trail.
The funny thing about cubes as they are affectionately referred to is that although one is mere feet or inches from their co-worker, people block out or pretend not to see or hear what their co-workers say and do. This is good form and good cubie etiquette. So, you can have a situation where a colleague is fighting with her boyfriend for an hour, neglecting her work all the while; cursing, tears streaming down her face complete with hushed hysterics. She gets off the phone and turns to you saying “can you believe that!?!” And, the correct answer is, “Oh sorry, what? Sorry I wasn’t paying attention.” The hysterical one, also knowing cubicle etiquette, yet knowing there is no way on earth you hadn’t heard, relates the episode in its entirety so as to maintain delicate cubie balance.
On the other hand, it is not uncommon for cube-mates, again inches away from each other, to call each other or email things they don’t want overheard. The walls do have ears my friends.
Adjusting to cubicle life was very difficult indeed. Difficult and dangerous! During my first few weeks I nearly killed my co-workers. Once when crossing my legs, my foot hit a metal bar, which capped off the end of the cubicle lovely I might add, which flew down and almost decapitated someone. Another time I opened my overhead file cabinet only to knock another colleague in the head! To avoid injury, I quickly learned that I could only move my chair up and down, not backwards and forwards, as rolling about could be hazardous. To be fair, I must explain that the cubicle I had consisted of the following: cubicle wall, about 10 inches to the back of my chair, about 10 inches to the edge of the desk and the desk backed up to the other cubicle wall.
How do people cope with such small, drab surroundings devoid of any sunlight, nature or interest of any kind? I’m thinking of draping my new cubicle in fabric and putting down a rug. Some bring in candles, pictures, pretty lamps or a plant to simulate a homey atmosphere. Others attach wedding photos and children’s arts and craft projects to fuzzy cubicle walls. Still others light up a joint and who could blame them.
My very first cubie experience happened years ago. I was doing temp work for a large, reputable publishing company in Manhattan. My co-worker rose from her seat, came round to my cubie opening-there are no doors-knocked on the thin metal frame and asked if I minded if she smoked. As this incident occurred in the late 1980s and there were no restrictions on smoking at that time (God I’m old), I said no. Of course I didn’t like it but didn’t feel I really had a choice. So there I sat, typing away in my little cube as the smoke rose and gently fell on my side of the “wall”. I noticed that it wasn’t cigarette smoke I was smelling but marijuana. I believe I mouthed the words oh-my-God! As cubicles also do not have their own ceilings the smoke made its way out of the area and down the hall. It was not long after that a manager visiting from Texas confronted my neighbor and promptly had her fired.
There is this weird schematic thing that happens in the cuber’s brain as it constructs walls, ceilings and doors where there are none. Cubicles more than 10 feet away are like separate continents. Your group, your cubie family as it were, consists of those who work on the same account or project and whom you can hit with a paperclip with minimal exertion. Paperclips are the cubie equivalent of emoticons with their tongues out or :P. So, the comment “nice shoes, guess someone hopes to get lucky tonight” is met with paperclip fire over the wall.
Then there is the interesting behavior that is created by the cubicle environment. Some are as territorial as junk yard dogs. God help the cuber (cubite, cubiphile, cubilite, cubinilean?) who does not have a partition to delineate their space because there will always be someone to come around to challenge it and take it away. These hyenas of the working world are those passive aggressive among us who push the legal sized proverbial envelope when it comes to boundaries. They are the ones who wear enough perfume to choke those within 100 foot radius (equivalent to approx 980 cubicles), play music LOUD, sing hymns to themselves, LOUDLY and open their folders and binders to ensure that at least a corner comes to rest on your countertop. I had one person ask if she could “store” things in my overhead file (that’s when I bopped her! KIDDING!…or am I). I had another person, who had the same amount of drawers and wall space, ask if she could hang flyers on my bulletin board! WHY?? Oh they are slick my friends.
Other people, knowing full well that one need only whisper to be heard, TALK TO THEIR CLIENTS LIKE THIS AS IF THEY WERE HARD OF HEARING!!! I worked with one person who did this and she managed to evade me for weeks because when I encountered her at other places like the copier or the kitchen, she spoke, not only quietly but I had to lean in to catch what she said. I would hear her start in with “MRS JONES HOW ARE YOU TODAY??? and I would drop my pen and run around to the other side of the cubicles to find out who it was. I needed to know who was 1) annoying me but 2) breaking cardinal rule #1-to speak quietly at all times. Because cubicles are so close together, I had a fairly good idea where the sound was coming from but was foiled every time she put the phone down. I would attempt to catch her out by going to the printer intermittently, but somehow like the Scarlet Pimpernel she would elude me. I gave up trying altogether and then a cubie cousin saw me roll my eyes one day during a particularly piercing projection and said “that’s our Angie.” Angie! AHA! It was her? Big mouth by day, Little Voice by night. It was as if putting the phone to her ear activated an unseen force in her vocal cords. I wanted to scream over the cubicles LET THE ELECTRONICS WORK FOR YOU THAT IS WHAT THEY WERE MADE FOR! I later found out that Angie had been made to move from her previous locale as she sat near the Vice President’s office who had his head done in by her eruptions-did I mention that cubie gossip dies hard?
We haven’t even touched on the gossip grapevine which exists in cubie life and is faster than the DSL I have at home! When I decided to leave this job I walked about 30 feet to my supervisor’s office and by the time I walked back to my cubicle the entire office knew I was leaving. I could actually hear my co-workers in other aisles saying “did you hear? Dana is leaving.” But for those who have boyfriends in jail, pending foreclosures, recently suspended licenses and domestic disputes, life can be hell. No matter how much people say they won’t tell or try to suppress, word spreads like butter.
Butter reminds me of the two worst smells one can endure in cubieland, fish and popcorn! Lunch times were particularly taxing to the nostrils. It seemed that the only time people ate at their desks was when they had fish for lunch and it would hit me like a punch in the face. The smell of popcorn would commence about an hour after lunch and would hang over the cubes like a noxious cloud. If the cubicle was designed to ensure that people could focus on only that in front of them, it failed miserably because there were days when I just simply could not get any work done. Between the sounds of Angie the phone fanatic or the Jamaican hymns of save me Jesus Jessica and the combined smell of what I like to call fishcorn, my mind, like my crappy computer, would freeze! Ugh, they put you in a cube, then tell you to think outside the box!
It was always at these times that the office stalker would come around. You know the one, every office has one-that person ready to pounce on you at the coffee machine or printer. If you don’t know someone like this but notice that you lose the will to live around someone? That’s the one. You don’t know her but she somehow believes she is your good friend, or biggest fan-scary! She attempts to elicit information about your private life and does not or chooses not to pick up on subtle cues such as when you turn around and leave her talking to herself or when you start stapling your own fingers together to avoid the pain of her conversation, gossip and insult to injury, bad breath. She has an uncanny sixth sense and knows the perfectly worst time to come round and literally hangs off the side of your cubie like an office monkey. “Hey, Dana, what’s wrong? (she frowns for me)” Uh, nothing? ” Oh, I saw you just sitting there and I know you are always so busy.” Oh my God what the &#^% do you want now? I say in my head. Outwardly, blank stare. Blink. “Oh ok, well I’m going to lunch, talk to you later.” Slow nod, big sigh.
Back to food though. There is one word. One word that is magical in the cubicle world. One word that turns the grey to all the colors of a kaleidoscope. One thing that makes it all seem, habitable, manageable, at least for one brief shimmering moment………..cake. “Cake? Did someone say cake? Suzy, Joe, there’s cake in the conference room, hurry up!” And all round the office that little word is sprinkled over cubicles like fairy dust and one can see heads popping up faster than a whac-a-mole carnival game…ahh cubie cake, thank God, I can make it through another day.