Yesterday, I had an epic two-hour long chat with my boss.
My boss and I get along very well. During my initial interview 18 months ago, it was apparent that we really just got each other. We have a lot in common, despite the fact that he’s a white, septuagenarian Christian and I’m, well, not. Every time we talk, I feel like I learn a little bit more about the world, about relationships, and about being a good person, and I really look up to him. A few months ago, knowing that he does pre-marital counseling (along with riding to work on his motorcycle, flying his own plane, and a lot of other awesome things), I asked him if he could recommend a secular or not-uber-religious pre-marital counselor for Eric and me. He said he’d look into it, but we happened to find one in the meantime (first session is tomorrow!). Still, he knows I value his opinion on things of this nature.
Yesterday, he asked me if I had a second (I did), and then said he wanted to share something about relationships that he’d come across during his Bible study the day before. Knowing that neither Eric nor I are Christian, he also knew I’d be interested in hearing it anyway, because I like good advice, and I’m down with hearing Bible passages in certain contexts. After he shared it, we got talking some more, and somehow proceeded to talk for another two hours about relationships, religion, and so much more. It was a very candid conversation, but just what I needed yesterday; Eric and I have begun to start planning our wedding and the discussion about the guest list has been (like it is for a lot of people) really emotional. By the time I left his office, I just felt really good – smarter, more grounded, more positive about everything — and yet when I tried to explain it to another friend, I realized…Gosh, as I’m explaining what we talked about, it sounds kind of kooky and probably inappropriate, if not illegal. And yet I felt totally happy about the conversation.
Later, over dinner, Eric was telling me how his coworkers had been having a conversation near his desk that made him really uncomfortable. He didn’t say anything to them, but he was regretting it. Their conversation was inappropriate for work and calling them out would have been totally warranted. Still, it’s hard to be That Guy at work, even when you know you’d be justified.
Both of these exchanges made me think about how we decide what is an appropriate topic of conversation with coworkers.
My office is so small; with some of our team telecommuting, it’s just a small number of us there most days. Everyone has his own office except for myself and my two coworkers, Jacob and Jesse. Our desks are spread out around the large open area of the office, but we’re close enough to stand up and talk to each other whenever the mood strikes. Beyond that, we IM each other throughout the day with interesting tidbits of information, walk to lunch together nearly every day, and take a walk to the nearby gas station for some fresh air, snacks, and a mental break every afternoon. We spend a lot of time together and in such a small office, it’s hard not to talk about everything; over time, we’ve become really close. Our relationship is very familial. We seek each other’s advice, we share ideas for new projects, we give each other pep talks when we’re feeling bummed creatively, we talk about the really big things in life, we have healthy debates on controversial topics, we preach to each other about controversial topics we all agree on, and we sometimes bicker and have to make up. I feel like my brain grows bigger every day from talking to these two, and I honestly can’t imagine what my life or my worldview would be like at this point without having had these conversations. We’re…friends.
And yet. We’re still coworkers. We aren’t exactly friends. There are still lines that can be crossed and sometimes I worry about that. I don’t want to be the coworker who suddenly makes things uncomfortable, who puts someone else in the position where they are wondering if they should say, “Hey, that’s not cool,” or if they should just skip that step and talk to a superior. I wonder if we’re being foolish, if these conversations are ones that could be used against us if things suddenly went sour. I don’t think any of us has ever said anything that crossed the line, but then again, I’m guessing that’s what everyone thinks until HR comes for them.
I tend to err on the side of “Everyone is going to be offended by me” until I know otherwise. With Jesse and Jacob, I began to get clues that they wouldn’t be, and at some point, we all began dipping a toe into the “this might be an awkward topic” pool. Once we started to see that the water was fine, we got more comfortable just cannon balling in. The same thing happened between Biff and me. Sill, I can’t have the same conversations with all of my other coworkers or bosses, because they wouldn’t be fine in every case, and if we got a new employee, I’d feel like I needed to start the process all over again. For me, figuring out what’s OK to say and what should be avoided has been a slow, careful process.
I recently read the Kindle Single Beware Dangerism!, which argues that if we don’t let kids take risks, they won’t learn to assess situations and actually be able to protect themselves when they need to. It left me wondering if we are doing the same thing at work or even with friends; if we aren’t ever allowed to talk about certain things a frank and open way with people who come from different backgrounds than we do, then it’s harder to learn what crosses the line or understand why exactly it does. I’m not saying that everything is an OK work topic, because it’s definitely not, and I’d never want to subject anyone to a conversation that upset them or hurt them or made them feel trapped. I’m just wondering if we’re missing an opportunity to learn from each other if we aren’t “allowed” to say certain things without the fear making someone feel uncomfortable or getting sued. Still, it’s a fine line to walk when one person’s lunchtime conversation is another person’s hostile work environment.
How do you handle this?