Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Canada Inside vs. Outside, Part 2

I am not fourteen and living with my parents, nor am I nineteen and living in a dorm room. Therefore, I’ve lost one of those treasured means of unrestrained self-expression of youth, the walls. As an adult, the only socially acceptable wall-like venue of expression is the refrigerator door, but I am not the type of person who likes to cover my fridge door in magnets.

In my life, and primarily due to my affection for sports, I have accumulated a vast array of pennants, posters, plaques, banners, magnets, and more. Yet, neither my spouse nor my sense of what’s appropriate for adult habitational zones allow me to display these items. The home is really where one puts framed paintings and stylish timepieces, not Dan Marino posters and English soccer team scarves.

When I started my first job, back in Michigan, where I had an actual desk in a cubicle, I found that these walls were a great place to extend my self-expression. I noticed that my co-workers did the same. When I had a really neat picture of my dogs in an exotic place or a commemorative soccer game banner or an unusual magnet, up in my cube it went. I thought that using my cube space in this way was a method for me to reclaim the self-expression I denied myself at home. I didn’t realize until I moved to Canada the significance of workplace expression.

When I was in my final week of work in Michigan, I spent a few hours carefully packing up all the sentimental and unique items that adorned my cube. I put them in a sturdy box labelled “MJB’s Desk Stuff” and taped it shut. “There,” I thought. “Now when I start my new job in Canada, I can just open this box, unpack all of this stuff, and I will start to feel at home.”

I started my job in Canada in September of 2008. During my first week, I found myself seeking out co-workers and managers for advice or assistance, and when I would enter their work area or office, I felt quite uncomfortable and nervous, almost as if I was having difficulty establishing a rapport. This was an unusual feeling for me because, as socially anxious as I am inside, I have become quite good at forcing myself to break the ice with new people. I had to learn this skill as I had worked as a trainer for so long.

After one particularly stressful day at work when I felt that I had been especially inept at communicating with my colleagues, I went back to my desk and noticed the semi-hidden and still unopened box—“MJB Desk Stuff.” Then it occurred to me—Canadians don’t put many personal items on display in their workspaces.

Years of working in the US where employees will decorate their workspaces with everything from political signs to pictures of themselves bikini-clad and inebriated, I learned quickly that the best way to build a good working relationship with anyone was to find an anchor—something that I had in common with the person around which we could build our relationship. If I had to go to talk to Sally about a processing system error, the minute I arrived at her desk, I would quickly scan the area and find something, some anchor, through which I could connect with her. If I had to visit Jim’s desk to help him resolve an Excel formula, as soon as I got there, I would spot a picture of his dog and immediately begin chatting about dogs. If I had to go into Rachel’s office to have a very serious discussion about issues with an employee, the minute I saw her Red Wings pennant, we’d be reminiscing like best buddies. This system worked great for me in the US. Not so much in Canada.

When I go to talk to an unknown co-worker here, I catch myself semi-consciously scanning their desk or walls for something of interest that I can use to break the ice. I can feel my heart rate increase and my nervousness rise as my eyes desperately search for something personal and usually only find maps of Ontario, pictureless calendars, staplers, and department phone lists. The lack of such an anchor compels me to revert to my rapid-fire personal questions, and Canadians don’t appreciate such an inquisition. Their short, general answers reveal almost nothing except their unwillingness to reveal anything.

After about six months at my job in Canada, I finally moved from my temporary workstation to my actual cubicle. I brought out my “MJB Desk Stuff” box, and to my co-workers’ horror, opened and began unpacking it. Out came all the pictures of my dogs Cody and Brit, my Mutter Museum magnet, my English Premier League soccer banners, pictures of my current and former hockey and soccer teams, my Eastern Illinois pennant, my Michigan insurance agent’s license, old wine corks, buttons and stickers for some of my favorite bands, my clock radio, Nightmare Before Christmas pins, hand exercisers. . . .the list is quite exhaustive. My co-workers really could not believe all of the things I put up in my cube. They dropped hints that they thought it was not professional or acceptable. I even heard that one company manager had once made a rule that all employees were each only allowed one personal item to be displayed in their workspaces. My response was, “If I have to spend over forty hours a week in this cube, I certainly intend to make it feel like my own space with things that make me happy surrounding me. I would think the company would want me to feel comfortable in my own space as I will be more productive.”

So much for taking a stand on my self-expression. At work I’m now viewed more as a curiosity, a side show of the sort that would be on a documentary about hoarders. Coworkers that come to my cube almost avert their eyes as they are so overwhelmed by the amount of personal items surrounding me. Luckily I can get away with it as I am just the crazy American, probably living up to sterotypes.

However, I want to make it easy for people to get to know me. I want someone who comes to talk to me to be able to find that anchor for a relationship. I want people to see that there is a lot more to my life than underwriting insurance policies. Canadians are very good at making a sharp distinction between their personal and work lives. I respect that, but I also know that sometimes a working relationship can really be strengthened by a personal connection.

I am resolved to the fact that I won’t be able to convince my co-workers to express themselves so outwardly. My co-worker Kevin has not a single personal item in his workspace (see photo below). When I chided him for this, he argued that the Montreal Canadiens wallpaper on his PC certainly qualified. Yet, even this is hidden by other computer applications for 95% of the day. I know that Canadians prefer to keep their opinions and expressions inside. I will continue to have references to aspects of my life stuck to my cube walls, but I will also continue to have to work to find discreet ways of making personal connections with my new colleagues.

Below is a photo of my coworker Kevin's desk, which represents a typical Canadian corporate workspace. I would like to point out that the only item of interest, the calendar with the photo, was given to him by me and displayed only after my insistence.

In this next photo, you can see my workspace.

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