Something happened last week that has me wondering if I did the right thing, and I think I need some reinforcement (or gentle criticism, please) from all you eHeller’s.
It actually began several months ago at my workplace. I work in a building with about a dozen people on our floor, and we serve the public. I have good relations with most everyone in the office, but things are strained with a couple of them, though we pretend otherwise to keep tensions down. I avoid their company whenever possible, especially with the one who figures into why I’m writing today.
In late October there was a convoluted incident with a person on a floor above us, the result of which I felt horrible about already (those details have no bearing on this story). I had gone up to discuss it with that person on the upper floor where I profusely apologized. A little later I came downstairs to be ambushed by one of the women, and while she was not in any way affected by what occurred with the party on the upper floor, she had heard about it. She laid into me for a good minute, shouting loudly about how I should be ashamed of myself, what was I thinking, surely I have better things I should have been concentrating on, etc, etc. God and all the saints had to have heard. At both sides of the service counter there were embarrassed glances of pity and dismay, not to mention a second, shocked, worker about 4 feet away from the shouter.
I was mortified. And humiliated. Publicly. When younger, I was an introvert and was bullied in junior and high school. While I’ve striven to overcome that in the years since, this woman has always struck me as the type that used to torture me back then, and had always rather intimidated me since I had moved to this office. I guess I was right about her after all, but nothing like this was ever in my radar, though.
So what did I do? I threw up my hands and walked off, saying nothing; a pathetic little mouse slinking off like the scum of the earth. I spent the next week or so crying and talking to myself, losing sleep, wiling away pointless hours imagining all the things I should have done and said, which was even more pathetic. (I’ve been on medication for depression/anxiety/panic for a good decade or more, and had been successful in getting off of them for nearly a year before this nastiness. I’m happy to report that, while I was afraid that I may have to restart them again, I’m still managing without them.)
Fast forward to December. There was no apology for October; I had been assiduously avoiding this woman for weeks with an alertness bordering on paranoia, and had only just started to relax my guard. She had been making a point to greet me or try to talk to me whenever the opportunity arose, more often than she ever used to. The school-age introvert in my head is whispering that she’s setting me up for another punch, though the rational side of me is (mostly) discounting this. At some point earlier in December it dawned on me that this woman hands out little trinket bag gifts for Christmas, to everyone, and I started feeling dread. I had a small hope that she might just leave me out of the loop this year, considering. But that was not to be.
Monday morning I came to my desk and there it was. A little Christmas bag to me from her, and I’m sorry, but I felt sick. I knew immediately that I couldn’t accept it. Even if I could manage to accept it, then I’d have to find her later and THANK HER…? It felt galling. Like my face was being rubbed in it. I stared at the bag. Could I just reinterpret her gift as the pretend apology I never received and accept it? Where’s my grace? On some other planet, apparently. I have tried hard to be a good Christian during the course of my life, but I didn’t feel much Christmas spirit that day.
I waited until I knew she would be by herself, took the bag back to her, set it on the table gently, and quietly explained that I wasn’t comfortable accepting it. She wanted to know why. I quickly rehashed the scene those weeks back, which, I was not at all surprised to learn, she remembered quite differently. She was “sorry that I interpreted it differently,” (there’s my apology!) but at some point arrived at the belief that she was helping me. I started getting nervous and was looking around to make sure others weren’t coming near, and ended the conversation by pussing-out again, mumbling something about how she did so much more than that, and scurrying off.
I’ve been thinking about this for some time since then. I’m relieved. She doesn’t have much to say to me now. At the very least, what’s done is done; just writing this is hugely therapeutic. I wonder if I have overworked this whole thing and have made the proverbial mountain out of a molehill. I’m certain it comes off partially as some sort of revenge thing on my part. Does it look like the little wussy non-confrontational mouse put her foot down a little belatedly? Maybe. I want to apply the “polite spine” adage to this thing, but not sure it’s fitting very well. I’m finding it difficult, however, to toss out what little pride I have left and just accept the abuse hurled at me with no recourse. 1221-15
What comes to mind when I read your story is that you need to understand the “whys” of etiquette so that you are prepared when other people behave in ways that create an awkwardness. There are basic principles of living a decent life that, once you understand them, will help you confidently navigate those tricky relationship shoals.
Principle Number 1: “If You Are Not Part Of The Problem Nor The Solution, Mind Your Own Business”. In this case, it was your co-worker’s obligation to mind her own business because she was not part of the problem nor was she part of the solution despite her belief that she was. She is not a supervisor who was responsible for the working relationships between the subordinates under her management nor is she responsible for the interactions between department employees. When you resolved the issue with the other co-worker, the matter was over, done, kaput. You took ownership of your responsibility in the conflict, you initiated the resolution and you exhibited humility and grace in apologizing and for that you should take comfort and pride in having done the right thing. That is the genesis of having a polite spine.
The slate on that matter was wiped clean and you let someone who had no skin in the game steal that victory from you. Raising your hands in surrender and walking away without a word was an acceptable solution to the predicament she put you in because it is none of her business how you resolve your personal conflicts that have no direct bearing on her and you are under no obligation to explain it to her. But for future reference, a better solution would have been to look her directly in the eyes and say, “Pardon me for interrupting, but this matter has been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction and I fail to see how your input has any relevance. Now, excuse me, I have work to do.” Etiquette is great for taking control of an out of control situation so that you can control the tone and direction and making it quiet clear that everyone, not just you, needs to get back to work.
Principle Number 2: “You are going to encounter pushy, busybody people like your co-worker for the rest of your life.” And if you think they are all “abusive”, you will be a victim for the rest of your life. More likely they are just selfish people with overrated opinions of their own self-worth.
Principle Number 3: “Sometimes a token gift is just a token gift.” In my opinion, you made more of the trinket gift bag than the giver intended because you attributed motives to her based on your past experiences as a child. She gives everyone in the office, regardless of her feelings about them, a token gift bag. It would have been extremely ill-mannered, evil and awkward if you had been the only person in the office to have NOT been given one. What this says about the giver is that she is not an evil witch intent on making your work life constantly miserable, and believe me, there are co-workers out there in the workplace who would have been that evil. You attached all kinds of motives to this gift bag that were likely not valid at all. Sometimes a token gift is just a token gift. You rejected a small gift and she, rightly, asked why and in explaining, you re-opened a situation that was better left closed but barring that, you should have resolved your angst with this co-worker much sooner, especially since you know she has a history of giving these little gifts every Christmas. The incident several months earlier and the giving of giftbags are two completely separate actions that have nothing whatsoever to do with one another but you’ve now connected them as if the giving of this gift bag to you was some nefarious plot to further bully you.
I know you won’t like this but you came across as looking petty and weak when you chose to return the token gift bag. Are you really never, ever going to say, “Thank you”, to this woman for anything? How do you function civilly in a work environment not routinely thanking your co-workers for things they do to assist each other? If you didn’t want to face-to-face thank her, send her an email, “Thanks for the gift bag”, and then regift to a homeless person or someone else. But you’ve now placed your co-worker in an awkward situation because next Christmas she will give away those small token gift bags to everyone but you, at your request. And that will look odd to everyone because you, and only you, have been singled out to be different. Is that what you really want?