The Boston Phoenix
December 28, 2000 - January 4, 2001

[Out There]

Working it

Giving the office your personal best

by Nina Willdorf

It Was Probably one of the worst possible things he could have done. Two weeks after we started dating, Dave sent me a dozen red roses -- at the office. Three days later, Dave and I were over.

Working It I can hear it now, that familiar "what the hell do women want from us anyway" rant. Here's an answer. Roses? Yes. At the office? Please. Dave's flowers blurted out my personal business; I'm much more into a low-decibel murmur.

And believe me, I murmur plenty. Last week alone, sitting at my desk, I made three doctor appointments, I had a fight with my mom and patched it up through my dad (typical pre-Thanksgiving family opera), I fixed a banking crisis, and I set up two friends, all in between vigorous back-and-forth games of phone tag with a few pals. My co-workers, if they'd been listening, could have had a field day.

What With today's standard of long work hours, it's practically impossible not to spend a healthy portion of the day dealing with personal matters. The hard part is warding off the tsk tsk of office disapproval by slyly "multitasking." Dave's red roses shot that all to hell.

"About 80 percent of what I do at work is personal," confesses a friend, who asked to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. We'll call him Nate. And Nate's not just talking about e- mail, a common workplace indulgence. He's fought with his girlfriend, made travel arrangements -- "I've done pretty much everything at the office," he admits. So, um, do you try to hide it? "Nah. Why bother?" Nate shrugs. "My boss spends all his time dealing with baby sitters and contractors. Why should I act any differently?"

It was a good question, and I had absolutely no answer to it. In fact, I'm all for taking care of business at work. But for those of us lacking the luxury of four walls and a door, spinning the illusion of productivity while putzing around is not the easiest thing to do. When you're all exposed to the boss, it calls for a little more ingenuity, a little more technique. For the high purpose of helping others, I took some time out from my pressing personal calls to throw together a few pointers.

Doctor appointments

Who wants that officemate across the way to know that you've been trying for two weeks to pass a kidney stone, and that, for the love of God, it's time for the authorities to step in? Of course, when you're chained to that desk, hedgy language is the only way to take care of this business with minimal information leakage to those within earshot. Yes/no questions, and lots of statements like "Sure" and "That works for me," tend to do the trick. If the people on the other line aren't being specific, a well-placed "Can you tell me what my options are?" will often allow you to say "That one!" and leave it at that. The point is to avoid vocalizing some awfully cringeworthy terms, terms like (in alphabetical order): bowel, cold sore, cyst, enema, discharge, hemorrhoid, infection, irritated, genital-anything, gyno-anything, HIV, menstrual, node, oozing, Pap, proctologist, pus, rash, wart, zit. Eeewww. No one wants to say these words, much less hear them. And you won't have to if you master the nonspecific questioning technique with doctors'-office receptionists. If all else fails, "I'm not quite sure what's wrong" will get you in the door to speak a little more freely about that itchy full-body rash.

Love life

My friends and I end up doing most of our social wrap-ups chained to our desks. But that thing called discretion doesn't stop us from finding demure ways to get the dish.

"So you went out this weekend with Tom?" I asked my friend Emily. "How'd it go?" "Weeeelllll," she said languidly, "he spent the night." "No way! I need details," I said. But procuring those details demands some foxy phrasing. Here's my strategy. #1: Start broadly. I usually employ high-yield yes-or-no questions to begin with, e.g., "Yes or no: did you have fun?" #2: Use ambiguous words that go both ways. "Yes or no: did you, um, you know?" or "So, did it work for you?" or "Is this going to go to the next level?" or "Were you able to broker a deal?" On her end, she uses similarly ambiguous phrases, ones like "Sure, it worked" or "We're still working on it." (It's always good to throw in the word "work" while avoiding working.) By the end of our quickie conversation, Emily and I may not have been quite sure which deal went down or what exactly that deal was, but hey, at least our co-workers were similarly stumped.

Personal maintenance

Eyebrow plucking, haircuts, and the like ... it's the kind of thing you just want taken care of, but setting up those appointments can be so totally embarrassing. In order to avoid the potential for discovery, some people choose to take care of it themselves -- at their desks. Nate, for one, keeps nail clippers, dental floss, and moisturizer within reach at all times. "What's there to be embarrassed about?" he asks. I cringe as I picture him with clipped nails shooting every which way from his lap, splatters of moisturizer misfire dotting his shirtsleeves. But Nate says he keeps it real by using the clippers while crouched in his cube, fostering an illusion of privacy that only the telltale high-pitched clipping noises give away.

Ultimately, I have to give it to Nate. Food extraction, nail clipping, moisturizing: that's some high-risk intra-office behavior. At any moment someone could duck in for a powwow about the latest memo, only to catch Nate midfloss. And I thought I was being all bold with my low-decibel, high-yield murmurs. Come to think of it, there seems to be a little something stuck in my teeth ....

Nina Willdorf can be found crouched under her desk, whispering into her phone about "the next level." Until she gets fired for revealing a bit too much, she can be reached at

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