Working From Home

There are a number of aspects to this Earthly existence of which we are aware, at some level, but about which we don’t tend to think too much.

One of the obvious ones is our own personal mortality. A lot of ink’s been spilled on that one, though, and I’m not in the mood for it today anyway. Probably you aren’t, either. So let’s move on, shall we?

I’d rather focus on another tidbit: one that’s equally out of our control, and almost as unsettling: None of us ever really knows how other people feel about us.

We have friends and lovers, parents and spouses and children, co-workers and bosses and therapists of various kinds and distant relatives and acquaintances. And all of those people relate to us the way they do out of a self-interest that may shift over time without our awareness. Or it may turn out never to have been what we thought it was in the first place.

Of all the people we know, only a few value honesty over politeness – and even they don’t say everything that occurs to them. Sometimes those who love us most hold the most back.

We know they probably talk about us sometimes behind our backs. We know this because we sometimes talk about them behind their backs. But we don’t know how often they do it, or what they say. Not really. We get hints sometimes, but those usually come long after the fact. We’re almost never up to date on our own gossip.

Sometimes we learn exactly what people we trusted have said behind our backs, and it stings. We dwell on the injury. We may never quite trust those people again. We may treat them as if they are the only people who have ever had negative thoughts about us. And yet, what are the odds of that?

Gossip from others

Moreover, when someone tells us what a third party said behind our back, we never know what our reporter said back to the speaker. Probably he or she went along with it to a certain extent, the way we have sometimes done, when we’ve heard gossip from others.

After all, agreeing up to a certain point is the only way to get most speakers to keep going. Defend a target too soon, and your well of gossip will dry up, never to be replenished.

“If everyone knew what others said about him, there would not be four friends in the world.” That’s Pascal.

Of course, the population has grown some since he wrote that in the 1600s. If everyone knew what others said about him or her today, maybe there would be 15 friends. I think I’d have three of them; I’ll leave the rest to you folks to sort out. And I’m sure I’d have a few things to discuss with even those three.

It’s possible that this issue is on my mind more than usual because for the past two weeks I’ve been working out of my kitchen. But that doesn’t make it any less true.

I’m working out of my kitchen because the magazine for which I work has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. I’m part of a skeleton crew. From 180 employees a few weeks ago, we’re down to 16 or so.

None of that matters for the purposes of this essay except that — by working out of my kitchen — I’ve become a little paranoid.

No one to say hello

At first I wasn’t sure why. Now I think it’s because I’ve lost all the people who used to say hello to me in the morning. The people who affirmed that I was not a ghost are now ghosts themselves, reaffirming the existences of strangers somewhere else, and most of my contacts lately come through e-mail and the disembodied voices of the phone.

It’s a weird existence.

Some people enjoy working from home, and seek out ways to make it happen. They like the freedom from oversight, the absence of office politics, the relaxed dress code, the easy commute.

And those things can certainly be nice.

But the oversight I had was generally friendly. Our office politics, such as they were, could be entertaining. Our dress code was already relaxed. And my commute was fifteen minutes on an uncrowded subway train and fifteen minutes of walking, each way. Not so bad, really.

I miss the feedback – the people whose smiles told me I’m not quite as bad a person as I tend to think I am. I don’t even run into the Irish guy who sweeps the sidewalks at the school next to my apartment anymore. I could easily walk to where he is, and talk with him about the Mets as I used to do, but there is no other reason for me to be there. When we finished talking, I’d have to turn around and head back inside. That would feel awkward, even the first time.

How all this relates to the theme at the beginning of this piece – that none of us ever really knows how other people feel about us – is that the usual way we figure out how they feel about us is by seeing them and talking to them.

All we have

It’s not a perfect system – people can deceive us, even then, and for long periods – but it’s all we have. As we look at people, and listen to them and talk to them, we can check out how we seem to be coming across. If they react to us in the usual ways, that tells us something, and if they don’t, that tells us something, too.

If we have to base the whole assessment on how quickly they return a phone call or an e-mail message, then our imaginings fill in the gaps. Someone may simply not be home, or may be busy, but may still like us just fine – or, in any event, about as much as they liked us before – but we are no longer able to tell, because we can’t see them.

Without the cues we get from really seeing people and talking with them face to face, we fall back on our reserves of self-esteem.

Even if our account is in good standing – even if we’ve been careful to diversify our sources of self-esteem – we may miss the regular infusions we used to get from outside. We may wonder how long it will be before our account dwindles, and we turn into one of those guys who writes angry letters to the editor, or picks fights with the neighbors, just to feel alive.

Given the recent layoffs in the technology sector, we’ll probably see an increase in that sort of behavior, as well as a few things we haven’t seen before. So let’s be careful out there.

Originally published by The Guy Code on September 11, 2001.

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