That’s how professor Dacher Keltner describes human beings.
While Keltner might feel differently if he spent time with people from your company’s IT department, it won’t be easy to bring the mammals together again in the zoo that is your office.
Which brings us to “Need to Dust Off Your Social Skills?” This recent Bonnie Tsui column in The New York Times reports on ways to relearn the social skills that made it possible for everyone to get along, long before you ducked out of the office for a few moments and didn’t come back for a year.
If an outgoing mammal like you is dusty, the social skills of the people with whom you work are buried in debris. Yet, you must all work together, a situation that another professor, Debra Kaysen, describes as “disorienting, surreal and difficult.” (Clearly, Kaysen has met people from your IT department, as well as your disorienting, surreal and difficult HR staff.)
According to Tsui’s article, the best approach is to “give yourself permission to set small, achievable goals.” Can’t give yourself permission? I’ll do it for you. Here are six teeny, tiny goals that Keltner recommends tackling:
No. 1: “Share food with someone.”
While eating alone is lonely, it does protect you from co-workers who eat with their mouths open and their wallets closed. If you’ve forgotten the valuable social skill of avoiding the check at the end of a business lunch, put your year in isolation to use.
“Sorry, got to run!” you shout as the waiter approaches with the check. “I can’t take all this socializing!”
By the time your co-workers divvy up the check, you’ll be long gone. This should save you -- and your budget.
No. 2: “Tell someone a joke in person.”
“Laughing together is essential to feeling connected,” research says, but you may have lost your once-impeccable timing after 12 months of telling jokes to your constant companion, Fluffy Bunnikens. Here’s a surefire knee-slapper: “What do you call an employee who refuses to come back to the office?” The punchline: “Fired.”
No. 3: “Ask someone what they’re listening to or reading right now.”
“Music and literature can be a community-building gift,” Tsui says. And when it comes to fine literature, like this column, it’s true. As for other cultural pursuits, forget about it. Your mammalian co-workers have been spending all their free time bingeing on gory detective shows and cheesy dramas on Netflix, just like you. Don’t embarrass them with questions about their plans to devote their free time to listening to Verdi and reading Proust. Instead, ask which Scandinavian country has the most depressed detectives: Sweden, Norway or Iceland. That should keep the conversation going for weeks.
No. 4: “Reach out to someone you’ve lost touch with.”
Are we talking about Marcy from sales or Edgar from purchasing? Losing touch with these losers has been one of the saving graces of working from home, alone. If you do want to “start rebuilding the larger social infrastructure outside our immediate circles,” pop off a friendly ping, like, “We’ll be back together in the office soon; please be sure to drop by my desk and pay back the money you borrowed before the office was closed.”
That should keep the Marcys and the Edgars lost.
No. 5: “Strike up a conversation with a stranger.”
No one is stranger than the people you work with, but you have to be careful about starting a conversation that, while perfectly pleasant at first, could drive you batty as the days and years drag on. Better to flex your chitchat muscle when your commute resumes and you start spending hours and hours stuffed in cars, trains and buses with strangers.
Some surefire conversation starters: “You’re stepping on my foot,” “Please give me room to breathe” and “You’re not living alone anymore. It’s time to start taking showers.”
No. 6: “Move with someone.”
“Physical synchronicity is one of the most important ways we have to connect with someone else,” according to Keltner’s tip. Besides jogging and power-walking, you can “do the dishes and fold the laundry together.”
What office memory is more vivid than the mountain of dishes that regularly appears in the breakroom sink? Expecting someone to wash those dishes is impossible. Better to get your co-workers to do your laundry.
Empty your hamper on the conference room table. Tell your manager you’ll pick it up after work, washed, folded and tied up with a bow.
Anything less, and you might as well stay home.