08
Oct
10

office strife

Reader T. M. writes:

The other day I went over to a coworker’s cubicle to ask him a question. He wasn’t there, but he’d left his computer on and unlocked, and I noticed an IM on his screen to another coworker had my name in it. I couldn’t help but read it while I was standing there. Let’s just say the  IM conversation wasn’t particularly flattering to me and I was insulted and hurt. Both of these coworkers are supposed to be friends of mine — we’ve even gone out to happy hour a few times and I went to one of their birthday parties a few weeks ago. Now I’m not sure what to do. Should I confront them about the conversation and what they said, even though I’m not supposed to know about it in the first place? Should I just cut ties with them both? I’m really hurt and confused.

Dear T. M.:

I’m sorry you had to come across that kind of back-handed nastiness. If your coworkers had a problem with you, they should have said so to your face. But obviously it’s a rare bird who is willing to own up to his or her actual feelings, particularly when they’re negative and about someone else. It’s too late now and you can’t un-see that IM. So I say be proactive.

watch out!

Loose fingers sink friendships. Image: br3akthru / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

First things first: you should remember that IM conversations are different beasts than face-to-face conversation. What I mean is, you may have seen something out of context that was part of a longer, harmless joke. Or you may not have understood the sentiment of the conversation — there could have been sarcasm or tones you weren’t party to by just seeing that part of the convo.

The problem with lots of modern communication like texts and IMs, beyond the fact that they’re easy to misinterpret, is the fact that they are actual reproducible records of what we say. We can joke around with our voices and never have to worry about what we’ve said being shown word-for-word to someone who wasn’t part of the original conversation (unless we’re being followed by a camera crew for a reality show or a budding linguist who records conversations for research). Unfortunately, this same devil-may-care attitude doesn’t necessarily translate well to the written forms. While we as a culture (or a generation, perhaps) take IMs or texts about as seriously as we take regular voice conversations (i.e. not seriously at all), textual convos can be used as incriminating evidence later on. Just ask any number of government officials who have been caught sending naughty texts to interns or supposed protegés. We don’t take what we write very seriously, and it can certainly come back to haunt us.

Basically, what I meant by that last paragraph was “let us all take this as a lesson”. I’m sure you’ve got a few IM conversations in your closet you’d rather not have seen in the light of day. But probably Google has a record of them somewhere. Imagine what offenses you could have caused to curious eyes, even if you didn’t mean them. It’s possible (and probable) your coworkers said things in this IM that they didn’t mean. In fact, I would argue that IMs can be taken even less seriously than real conversations, in spite of their reproducibility. I know it’s no comfort to you, but there are things we’re willing to type that we’d never say out loud to anyone, because it would just be too much.

In any case, you should probably figure out what the IM actually meant. You’re going to be stewing over it anyway. You might as well know if they really meant to insult you. If they did, you can tell them you don’t appreciate it and end the friendship in a whirl of flaming glory. Piece of cake. If they meant something else, you’ll at least have a clear mind over it and you can feel better, although I doubt you’ll be willing to be as close with them as you were before. Unless you’re a masochist, hanging out with people who belittle you isn’t usually fun. The trust is broken.

I hate to do victim blaming, but you kind of brought this on yourself, too. I would also warn you not to read private IM conversations, but first off, you already know that, and secondly, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop that kind of curiosity. And it may be better that you found out how these people feel about you, even if it had to be in this manner.

I think the one thing we can all take away from this is that we should try to think before we send our own IMs. And who’s actually going to do that?

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4 Responses to “office strife”


  1. 1 DÄBé
    October 8, 2010 at 10:53 am

    I’ve never read a better written or more thorough analysis of an Abby-type question. I was hoping you might have a magic answer to this modern variation on accidental eavesdropping, but I doubt there is one.

  2. October 8, 2010 at 11:07 am

    I say screw analyzing and move on to bigger and better things. People who IM at work talking shit about their coworkers need to get a richer life anyway.

    -L

  3. October 8, 2010 at 11:24 am

    I guess but do you work at an office? It’s f’n boring and gossip is entertaining. I read blogs like nobody’s business and finish my work and I still have free time. I have a pretty rich life but I think we all need to admit how much gossip is a part of human nature, whether you want it to be or not. We all do it and the times that we are hurt by it can be reminders about how we can be kinder to others.

  4. 4 paul
    October 8, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    I think the lesson learned is always close your IMs before you leave your desk, especially if you’re trash talking.


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