The return of The Economist’s agony uncle

5 min read
Listen to this story.
Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android.

Your browser does not support the <audio> element.

Dear Max, I am a 23-year-old social-media marketer who has only recently been required to return to the office. I had been told that the office would be great for having watercooler conversations. My office doesn’t seem to have a watercooler. What should I do?

Now you ask, I’m not really even sure what a watercooler is. But the basic idea is to find a place where you know colleagues are bound to go regularly and where you can engage in light conversation about whether they saw anything good on TV last night. My advice is to hang around any tap and you should meet colleagues fairly regularly.

I have just been promoted into a senior role. I have noticed that many of my new peers like to open meetings with small personal anecdotes about something that happened to them that day—a minor cycling accident, say, or a chance encounter with an old acquaintance. It seems to be a way of getting people to relax a bit. The trouble is that nothing interesting ever seems to happen to me. What should I do?

I wouldn’t worry too much. Those stories are mostly made-up and all deliberately boring. No executive ever opens a meeting talking about how they woke up in their own clothes but in a total stranger’s apartment. The goal is only to put people at their ease by making the speaker seem faintly human. Just say exactly what you put in your message above and then make your face go a bit vulnerable. That should do the trick.

The meeting rooms in our offices have just been given new and quirky names. All of them are different kinds of dips. I’m typing this in Baba Ghanoush; my next meeting is in Taramasalata. Am I alone in wanting to scream?

This is a truly revolting trend. There are people walking around offices right now saying things like “Focaccia seems to be taken. Is Ciabatta free?”, “I’m in Ulaanbaatar. Where are you?” and “Let’s set up a projector in Nelson Mandela”. You either sound totally idiotic or as if you are suggesting something appalling. Just describe the room you are referring to: the one where Mandy gave that terrible presentation, say, or the one where absolutely nothing works.

I recently had a very disturbing thought. I don’t feel like I am an impostor. Does that mean I actually am one?

I’m afraid you have developed non-impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome, the much more common condition, is the worry that you are not good enough to take on certain roles. If you own up to this feeling, you will almost certainly be told that you are way better than the people who blithely hold those roles now. If you have non-impostor syndrome, you start to wonder whether you are one of the people they mean and therefore deeply incompetent. The only known cure for non-impostor syndrome is impostor syndrome.

Whenever I go to the toilets, there’s a new member of staff in there loitering by the washbasins. As I am washing my hands, she asks me whether I have seen anything good on television recently. I have seen her doing the same to other people. Should I report her to HR?

I think I know what’s happened here. Leave this one with me.

I often do Zoom calls from home. I recently tried out a new artificial-intelligence tool that promises to automatically adjust my surroundings so that my home office looks more professional. In all the demos, it does things like remove dirty clothes and straighten books on shelves. But when I try it, it does none of that. All it does is remove me from view and fill in the background so it looks like the room is completely empty. What does this mean?

I called the people who made this tool and they have never heard of this kind of behaviour before. We have looked at your photo on LinkedIn and we do all agree that the AI seems to be making exactly the right call. On the downside, we also seem to be closer to the Singularity.

I can never time my interjections correctly. If I try to judge when a speaker is about to stop talking, I either break in too early and end up apologising for interrupting, or am a beat too slow and someone else grabs the floor. Do you have any tips?

There are only three ways to handle this common problem. One is to start so loudly that everyone immediately gives way. You may come up against a fellow-shouter and then it’s just a battle of nerves: who is going to give way? The second is to raise your hand and wait: you’ll get your turn eventually and be listened to. The third is to get promoted. If you are senior enough, it doesn’t matter how ludicrous a point you are making; everyone gives way. Keep sending me your problems, and enjoy the break!

Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:
How to master the art of delegation (Dec 14th)
Why Monday is the most misunderstood day (Dec 7th)
Generative AI generates tricky choices for managers (Nov 27th)

Also: How the Bartleby column got its name

You May Also Like

More From Author

+ There are no comments

Add yours