When I was fresh out of college and deciding what to do with the rest of my life, I worked front-desk in a business center. We had interesting clients who rented offices: Social workers and lawyers, mediators and therapists, and quite a few credit counselors. Much to my dismay, we even rented an office to an exterminator. There is nothing quite like answering the phone and listening to someone screech about the rats that hide behind their stoves.
It was a healthy mix of educated and eccentric people and it was an interesting place to work. The three years I spent there gave me a curious perspective on office etiquette.
I shook a lot of hands during these years. Trust me when I tell you it becomes tiresome stating your name and offering your hand (dousing it in Lysol afterwards) many times a day. The lawyers had strong handshakes (the criminal lawyers had a hard time letting go); the mediators less so.
Therapists seem to smile more or, on a bad day, grimace while photocopying or drinking the awful coffee I had made.
The social workers needed more sleep; they would tell me this, elbows rested on my large corner desk, while I worked hard to listen. It was my social obligation, after all.
But it was not the numerous handshakes (and probable colds resulting from them) that made me question office etiquette. It was the simple question, “how are you?” or any variation of this question.
I have always wondered what would happen if I had been honest.
I am sitting in my office-appropriate-orthopedic-chair and in walks one of our clients. Let’s refer to him as Client A.
Client A, an impeccably dressed lawyer, asks me, “Good Morning! How are you?” and he waits for my obligatory and socially acceptable reply. Something like “Very well, and yourself?” We might then comment on the weather, the status of the broken printer, perhaps what was on television last night. Acceptable things.
But what if my reply was utterly-no-holds-barred honest? I might have stated:
“Oh, you know. I’m okay. My partner and I had a huge fight last night which resulted in my devouring large amounts of chocolate and him sleeping on the couch. Also, I think I gained a few pounds.”
That’s probably a bit too much information. What about something simple? Something human? What if I was having a rough time, life was not being kind to me, and I replied:
“I’m feeling a little down, but it’ll pass.”
Client A would certainly be surprised — honesty is a dying art form — but would he reply with empathy or just consider me strange? It’s an interesting paradox and one that is not often challenged.
And, come to think of it, maybe it should remain this way. Can you imagine sitting down with your supervisor and telling him or her that you certainly do deserve a raise because you have suffered three respiratory infections this year based on the perpetual handshaking within the office?
Sarcasm aside, office etiquette keeps things rolling smoothly but the psychology behind it is interesting.
The next time someone asks you how your day is going, do an experiment: Be honest. If nothing else, it will liven things up.
Image of marketing insights by Shutterstock.