Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Pi(e) Day, and the Decay of Social Skills in the Modern Office

Today is 3/14, and in honor of Pi, we had pie. French silk chocolate pie, from Ukrop's. Tasty! I got a few bewildered coworkers to contribute to our Pi(e) Day celebration, and we chowed down most heartily at 1:59pm (pi time: 3/14 1:59). I'm also proud to say that I added 3 digits to my knowledge of pi: 3.14159265358979323846264338327950288

Ok, enough geekdom...

I've often been bothered in the workplace by people who don't seem to notice when the conversation is over. You've met them: they're the ones who won't let you leave your own cube when you're already late to a doctor's appointment. They're the ones who keep re-hashing the same 5 sentences and finding new and unnecessary correlations to dead subjects. You probably think of them as bores who just don't take a hint. I know I did, until recently.

You see, I've been reading a lot about 19th century naval and social etiquette, and as wildly different as that time seems from today, there are also some shocking similarities, and the author touches on many of them. The social awkwardness that I'm talking about has been a problem for a long time, but it didn't seem to be so prevalent when I was younger.

The inability to recognize the end of a conversation is a demonstration of a lack of social grace. It's not just that the person is awkward, it's that they were never taught how to recognize the clues.

I spend a fair amount of my time at work trying to get out of conversations that are going nowhere, and yesterday was particularly trying. One coworker was asking for some work that would take me a few hours. I offered suggestions and consulted with him on the range of options, and knew that I was getting close to my time to leave (I was going to meet Amanda and Alastair at the doctor's office). In an effort to draw that conversation to a close, I asked a light and unobtrusive question about his recent education path.

The point of this type of question is to allow a natural conduit to a quick end. Figuring there wasn't much to be said on the subject (a calculated consideration, based on what I know about him), I asked if he was still pursuing certifications. Somehow, he misconstrued the question and began an oratory on the changing face of certification, potential upgrade paths, how one certification relates to another, and myriad potential tie-ins.

Seeing that my window of opportunity for escape was rapidly closing, I employed another tactic for escaping a bore: the loop-back. I reverted to the original subject, stated that I would begin work on it first thing in the morning, and that he'd be good to go.

No luck. This is supposed to elicit an "all right, cool; thanks. I'll see you then." But with this fellow it drew up a whole new series of questions that had nothing to do with my involvement.

See, the problem wasn't that the issue needed to be addressed any more, it was just that he didn't know how to leave. He prated for so long that I had almost no time to eat lunch before the appointment. Before he left, I had my coat on, my laptop packed and over my shoulder, and was beginning to move toward the door.

It's an infuriating and ingratiating habit that I've dealt with way too often in the IT world, and I think it shows a failure of the modern education system. We focus way too much on memorizing data and understanding the correlation of one fact-set to another, but there's no formal cultural education outside of art and history.

Social graces need to be taught. They do not occur naturally. I'm not advocating any particular overhaul of public education, but if we keep ignoring social grace, it will become very difficult to deal with people in a short while. Already, if you're good to people and make it easy to get things done, you get accused of being a "good ol' boy". But I've never met a good ol' boy that couldn't end a conversation.

Damn that pie was good.

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