Oh boy, oh boy — my very own bully!

Well, it’s been a year of firsts: my first bike accident, my first broken arm, my first experience of  scuba diving, and my first (and hopefully only) encounter with bedbugs.

And now, my first bully.

I wonder what Duffy's up to these days...

OK, that’s not quite true. When I was a kid there was a boy named Duffy who lived down the lane, which sounds like a song but it’s not, and he used to lie in wait behind the hedge for all us smaller girls to come along on the way to school and then jump out and… well, I don’t remember what, exactly. Probably chase us for half a block and yell “I see your underpants” or something to that effect.

It was upsetting at the time, of course, but in hindsight I must say young Duffy could have taken a lesson from the girl ruling the roost at my office these days – although I’m glad he didn’t. I call this creature a “girl” because despite her age (35-ish) she certainly isn’t being an adult; hell, I’m hard-pressed to call her a humanoid life form, actually.

The background to this wee tale of woe is that for several weeks now I have been working full-time at an office in which I normally work part-time. The bully, whom I shall call “Shawna,” and her sidekick, whom I shall call “Sandy,” have been a known factor for as long as I’ve been there — the humanoid equivalent of the creaky step on the staircase, or Aunt Mabel’s tendency to pass wind at Thanksgiving dinner. They hate pretty much everyone except a select few, and everyone knows it.

(Why management hasn’t seen fit to apply some metaphorical cornstarch to this particular squeak, or administer some metaphorical Gas-X to dear old Aunt Mabel is anyone’s guess, and a topic for another day.)

Anyway, as a part-timer I was able to steer clear of these nincompoops and stay more or less out of their line of fire — “fire” being a euphemism for whispering, giggling, pointing and messaging back and forth more or less all day. I didn’t have to pay attention to either of them and so I didn’t.

Alas, my full-time work consists of filling in for “Shawna,” who is temporarily on another assignment (which is, regrettably, not cleaning pit toilets in Calcutta), meaning I must sit near her and also ask for her guidance every now and again when an unfamiliar aspect of the job rears its head.

Sitting near her and “Sandy” has all the charm, I’ve discovered, of sitting in a Grade Five classroom wearing a “Kick Me” sign and a big floppy hat with fruit on it.  I like to tell myself it’s nothing personal — I have checked my back for signs, I sport no headgear of any sort and the rest of my colleagues actually seem to like me well enough — but when conversation dies as I approach, when eyeballs roll and the giggling and frantic typing back & forth begin, even someone as oblivious as I am to the nuances of human interaction is bound to sit up & think, “Forsooth, I seem to be the target of a flurry of gossip.”

Welcome to our office... ha ha...

This would, of course, be merely an annoyance – easily remedied with an iPod and some sound-cancelling headphones (or something nice in a tranquilizer dart, but you can’t say that in Canada) – but for the gruesome fact that, as I said, I must occasionally ask Shawna’s guidance in order to do my job.

The first time I tried this I simply turned my head and said, “Shawna, when you have a moment, could you help me with this?” To my surprise, I was met with dead silence – not even a flicker of her eyeballs. I raised my voice slightly and tried again. “Shawna…”


I stood and stepped over to her desk. “Shawna, excuse me but I need your help with this.”

Incredibly, nothing. Her eyes were straight ahead, hands on the keyboard, as though I were a wraith – or one of Aunt Mabel’s legendary eruptions. For a brief moment, I thought “absence seizure” or perhaps sudden death (oh please…).  But no.  Of course by now everyone else in the office had downed tools to watch this incredible little scenario unfolding and I felt like a prize asshole, which is of course what Shawna seemed to want.

I quickly reasoned that this was a losing game, and, not being one for scenes, I simply returned to my seat, red-faced and seething.

May I offer Monsieur some mucus with his meal?

The thing about treating people poorly is that, as my Great Aunt Edna Smiter used to say, what goes around comes around. The gauntlet was thrown down that morning, and a large part of my consciousness was now, alas, devoted to lying in wait, panther-like, for an opportunity to retaliate. Waiters strike back at snarky customers by including bodily fluids with Madame’s steak tartare. Customer service people do it through judicious use of the “hold” button and endless vibraphone renditions of Paul McCartney’s later works.

Smiters… well, I won’t tell you what Smiters do because I haven’t currently got a lawyer on retainer. But let’s just say that once you piss off a Smiter, it is probably a good idea to put your running shoes on and leave the country under an assumed name, wearing nothing but the clothes on your back.

The last few weeks have continued more or less in this  uneasy vein. I now dutifully  email Shawna with my (less and less frequent) requests for help, in order to lay the necessary yet odious Paper Trail that will be required if somehow I really flub it doing this job.

More often than not she replies (she is nothing if not clever, in the way that bullies usually are), but not without gusty sighs of exasperation, copious eye-rolls and an ensuing flurry of messaging and giggling between her and Sandy and whoever has been allowed into their circle that day.

Inevitably, however, things finally came to an ugly head late last week when I was presented with an entirely unfamiliar request, marked “Urgent.” Reluctantly I asked for Shawna’s assistance and this time was given only a smidgen of the answer and a thinly veiled directive to “just figure it out, retard.”

This is akin to a novice pilot, upon peering out the cockpit window and discovering his conveyance robustly aflame, requesting assistance from the ground crew and being told, “You figure it out, dimwit. We’re busy with Nintendo down here.”

No, I won't help you - what the hey??

It was also akin to waving a red flag at a bull, and something broke with an almost audible snap in my head as I realized that this hare-brained pantywaist was not only ticking me off royally, but standing smack in the way of actual Important Company Work being completed.

A line had been crossed, nay, stomped on with hobnailed boots.

The Smiter clan, a crusty yet accomplished crew of hard-working Scots and Irishmen, especially prides itself on doing a good job, doing it well and doing it expediently. And God help the empty-headed drooling knuckle-dragger who stands in the way of that objective.

For a few moments I sat quietly in my chair, staring at the keyboard and doing a passable job of not leaping out of it and cracking Shawna smartly across the skull with a file drawer.

And then, at the urging of another colleague (who would love, as I would, to see Shawna’s lifeless body used to plug the oil leak currently bubbling away beneath the Gulf of Mexico), I went to talk to my boss.

In case of gusher, insert bully.

Never in my life have I had to do this. As I said, we Smiters are  a proud and self-sufficient lot; I handled Duffy myself (I was smaller and faster) and last October when I crashed my bike, I rode  home (stopping only briefly to vomit into a bush) with an arm that was broken in two places, a cracked kneecap, two broken ribs & a hairline fracture in my ankle. Tattling is for wimps.

Or so I thought, until Shawna upped the stakes from personal into the larger and more urgent sphere of How Smiters Earn Their Living.

So, tattle I did, heart firmly in mouth. And I am pleased (OK, gloating somewhat) to report that all’s well that ends well: despite Shawna’s best efforts to sabotage my work and pummel my reputation, her own nasty reputation precedes her, and the Eye of Management is now firmly upon her and her sidekick, and upon anyone stupid enough to collude with them or laugh at their jokes from here on in.

I also have in my possession a hearty recommendation and commendation from my boss, and her permission to ask her personally for assistance from now on, rather than rely on Shawna, whose efforts to sabotage me had been, shall we say, noticed from above.

I blush to admit that I now also have two letters of recommendation and thanks from colleagues who are endlessly glad that ol’ Shawna is no longer at the helm in the position I now occupy.

The only thing lacking is a real-time photo of Shawna’s legs frantically waving from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, but hey, even Smiters can’t have everything.

So I shall return to work tomorrow refreshed, vindicated and secure in the knowledge that the giggling and whispering can’t touch me, no, never. Nyah nyah.

Now, where did I put my tranquilizer gun?

Be vewy, vewy quiet -- I'm hunting idiots...

Susan Pinker’s advice column on office cliques, Globe and Mail, Sat. June 5, 2010


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