The Watercooler of Silence

by Jennifer Li Shotz
Originally Published: 

Then recently I had occasion to work at a new company. It was the usual scene: cubicles, coat lockers, dusty Post-Its on unused desks, a single paper clip and tubular salt packet in the drawer.

That first day in the new place, where I had a newcomer’s perspective, the sense of offness was unmistakable, but still unnamable.

I studied the people around me; I covertly eyeballed their 5th reunion photos tacked to fabric-covered cubby walls, observed their various BPA-free or stainless steel water bottles with “Kelsie and Taylor: June 14, 2014!” etched on the sides.

On the second day, it came to me as I cracked open a transparent plastic salad bar container and the sound echoed painfully across the floor: There was no chatter. No clatter. No ringing of phones, no “Hi, this is Stacey,” no polite conversation into headsets, no clack of receivers hitting cradles.

No one speaks out loud anymore.

It’s all email or file-sharing or Dropbox or servers or what have you. Back when all these assistant editors were knee-high to a grasshopper, we used the phone. We talked to each other. We memorized numbers and dialed them, and we left voicemails, and we called each other back, and we closed our office doors so we could talk about work and gossip too.

Maybe it’s more efficient now, but it’s…flat. Empty. The lack of phone chat contributes to an overall sense of propriety and reticence. Gone are the days of boring the person over the cubicle wall with tales of your weekend dating adventures. Gone are the afternoons of listening to your colleague phone-flirt with Jeff from the Chicago office. Gone are the days of actually knowing the sound of your coworkers’ voices, of catching a hint of personality and dark humor in unexpected people.

It’s just one more sign of my growing older, I suppose. These kids today, they don’t know any different. They don’t know what they’re missing—that we used to cackle and chew the fat and crunch on snacks and shoot the breeze and actually get to know each other.

And that’s okay. Change is good. I don’t mind being the old lady screaming, “Get off my shared drive!” over my buckling shelf of defunct Encyclopedia Britannicas. And I’ll just eat lunch somewhere else, while I check emails on my phone.

Photo: Flickr/Jan-Hendrik Caspers

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