The workplace Scrooge

Jan 04 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

It's a common exchange, heard after every winter break, at high-intensity workplaces everywhere. Someone innocently asks a coworker, "And how was your holiday?" to which the inquisitee sharply responds, "I was working." Now maybe it's just my lingering sense of guilt over the fact that I took a longer-than-normal Christmas vacation after a particularly crazy year, but this answer comes across as just plain bitchy.

It's not the fact that you worked through the holidays that bugs me; I've done that plenty of times myself. I wouldn't have a problem with the response, "Oh, it was alright. We stayed in town, and I got some lab work done. Relaxing AND productive is always a nice Christmas gift!" But no, Mr. Scrooge has to get all k3rned-like on everyone's ass instead of participating in a pleasant conversation.

For the record, it's not my fault your MIL was in town for two weeks, chasing you out of your home with her incessant nagging, and it's not my fault you had a million things to do in the lab due to your own inept ability to plan out experiments, and it's not my fault that you didn't feel you could take a break due to that two week vacation you enjoyed this past summer.*

So before you get all high-and-mighty about others' time in the lab, you best check yourself Scrooge. I'm on a mental and emotional high note right now, and I will NOT have it disrupted by your skewed sense of tit-for-tat workplace politics.

*Note added after reading some of the comments below: none of these were meant to be an attack on a specific person. Instead, I actually spent a little bit of time chatting with friends over coffee, about why people might choose to work on a holiday they normally would celebrate, before writing this. My whole-hearted apologies if any of these "reasons", or any other part of this post, offended anybody.

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30 responses so far

  • Yael says:

    At my workplace, I noticed that it's not uncommon to work through the Christmas/New Year season, not that people are so uptight about it, just that some people take their breaks during Chinese New Year/Diwali/Rosh Hashana etc so "I was working" tends to mean "I don't celebrate Christmas (but possibly planned a break to coincide with some other time)".

  • becca says:

    Yeah, 9 times out of 10 the subtext of such a conversation is: "I didn't celebrate that holiday, because of lack of motivation to celebrate". Lack of motivation includes: 1) different religion/cultural background 2) lack of family/family nearby enough and 3) really annoying family. Given the probability of any or all of these factors coming into play, a chirpy "how was your holiday" is actually a statement full of unexamined privilege.
    These mitigating factors of scroogosity really have nothing to do with the seeming k3rned-ness of the respondent- indeed, increased k3rn type hostility may result directly from needing to mentally cast the absence of holiday motivation as a righteous thing.

  • Bashir says:

    Maybe it's because a lot of our work is portable, we don't really get that. Many years I've taken off to my hometown and done some work remotely. Though this year I made a clean break, mostly because I was exhausted.

  • Dr. O says:

    a chirpy "how was your holiday" is actually a statement full of unexamined privilege

    Seriously? Is this where we are now? Asking someone a friendly question warrants a snippy response, because of the "privilege" of taking a vacation? Maybe if the person asking the question was your boss, who refused to give you any time off for the holidays, then I say the snippiness would be justified. But a friendly conversation starter greeted with a snipe is out of line.

    I totally get that some people I work with don't celebrate the same holidays I do, but several do. I also get that science sometimes requires us to forgo some of those holidays we want to take. In many cases (certainly not all), getting snippy with a lab mate/coworker when you've voluntarily worked through a holiday is either 1) misplaced anger or 2) a way to exert your own superior k3rned views of dedication to teh scienzzzzz. Either way, I'm not in the mood.

  • [...] forgot to link you guys over this morning to the Scientopia Guest Blogge, where I went on a rant about workplace Scrooges. Share [...]

  • becca says:

    As the daughter of a Teamster, I'd argue that taking a vacation isn't a privilege- it's a right union workers died so you could exercise.

    But belonging to the dominant religion and culture is classic privilege.
    And, in a way, so is having a good family that you can spend time with for holidays. Remember, not all unexamined privilege is somebody being a bigoted jerk.

    Chances are, the person is just a grump. Likely k3rned idoicy is playing a role- though again, in a lot of cases I can think of, the k3rn idiocy is the post-facto rationalization, not the rationale, for the lack of holiday.
    But there are many reasons people go through stages where the holidays are a particularly difficult time, emotionally. It's worth thinking about.

  • Dr. O says:

    I don't need to think about the fact that holidays might be difficult for others; I was in exactly that spot last Christmas - suffering from PPD and I hated everything about my life AND Christmas. But I didn't take anybody's head off when they asked how my holiday was after the fact. I'm sure I was less than chipper, but I bared no ill will towards those who were happy. A little jealous of their happiness to be sure, and I knew it. So I bit my tongue when others went so far as to tell me I should have been joyous for my first Christmas with Monkey. It never seemed appropriate to be angry at others who were happy, or those were just making conversation, because of my own depression/circumstances.

  • Of course, when you're a company accountant and you always have to work through the holidays to get the dec 31 statements out, it's very irritating when people who've know this for years still ask the same dumb question.

    Yes, yes, I know, our fault for becoming accountants.

  • Wait... you can LEAVE when your ILs are visiting?

    This changes EVERYTHING.

  • p.s. I agree with Becca and found this post to be incredibly grumpy! Ironic! Cut people some slack. It is incredibly likely that their decisions or responses are not judging yours and are in no way intending to offend you.

    Now I'm afraid to answer people's questions about my break. Were my seemingly sympathetic unmarried/childless colleagues waiting to post on their blogs about the horribleness of my response regarding my holiday experiences with in-law visitations? I guess the only possible response is to say, "Fine" and lock myself in my office where nobody can find me. Otherwise I might risk offending someone! Small talk around the coffee maker is just too dangerous.

    • Dr. O says:

      Whoa, okay, I had no idea I was pushing THOSE buttons. I thought I was merely commenting on the fact that some people in science like to point out how they've martyred themselves in service to their superb work ethic, which is especially annoying when the comment carries an air of superiority. And now that I've re-read my post and your comment, I think I might understand the source of the uproar(???):

      For the record, it's not my fault your MIL was in town for two weeks, chasing you out of your home with her incessant nagging, and it's not my fault you had a million things to do in the lab due to your own inept ability to plan out experiments, and it's not my fault that you didn't feel you could take a break due to that two week vacation you enjoyed this past summer.

      (Yes, I did just quote myself.) Just to be completely clear - the reasons given here for why someone might have gotten snippy do not relate to any specific real-life person. They were made up (well mostly, based on experiences of mine and my friends) and were not intended to be a pseudonymous attack on anybody. In fact, I found the first one kind of funny when I wrote this. Obviously, my humor missed the mark, and I apologize if I offended anyone.

      As for the fact that some people like to brag about how much they work, even during a holiday, purely to make others realize how inept they are - those people still annoy the crap out of me. Maybe that single sentence should have been my post.

    • Dr. O says:

      Although, based on the responses here, I am starting to wonder how many people I might have offended over the years by asking the question "how was your holiday"? Seriously, is the question THAT charged??

      • Yael says:

        I think it might get annoying to some people for whom "the holidays" are not really "their holidays", where "their holidays" are not federal holidays (but your holidays are--and they have to take separate vacation time off to observe theirs and make up the time over federal holidays). I have never heard any of my colleagues (for instance) refer to Diwali or Passover as "the holidays". Where I work (where Christmas observance is actually in a minority) people refer to Thanksgiving and the New Year as "the holidays" but not Christmas.

      • Pika says:

        Just my experience, but yes, for me it is very charged and it annoys me no end, since there is no way I can tell the truth and not get the other person either pity me or fall into awkward silence.

        The truth is I spent the holidays visiting family and going to a nursing home where my father with Alzheimer's is currently living - went there every day to help feed him either lunch or dinner. Fun. While at the same time managing problems from my chronic illness and coming back from holidays exhausted and in no celebratory mood whatsoever. But try explaining that to anyone and you'll see what reaction you get - mostly there will be an awkward silence and then they'll start avoiding you. Therefore yes, I hate this question, not just in context of Christmas, but any type of vacation or breaks.

        So, please, don't assume that everyone enjoyed their holidays and came back willing to chirp about it. People may have problems that others don't know anything about.

  • darchole says:

    OTOH it sometimes really annoys me when people ask me that question - they (should) know that with what I'm maintaining (insects) that I can't leave for long periods of time. Then there are other people who aren't in a a position to take time off either i.e. live too far away, writing a dissertation or grant, time sensitive experiments, on call for some reason, ect. I usually ask people if they 'got time off' during the holiday break, which I hope comes across as more understanding the research doesn't always allow you time off. (I'm not saying you meant it that way, and yeah sometimes I am just in a grinchy mood when people ask me that.)

    • Dr. O says:

      I know people who can't take off more than a few days, but they still take breaks from work, either at other times of the year or during university holidays. I also know many MDs who end up on call during the holidays, but they usually still take a holiday, just maybe not with travel, and possibly a few days late/early. I guess I just didn't realize some who *have* to work through the holidays didn't often get some sort of compensatory time off. I'd completely understand being grinch-y about that.

      The circumstances I was originally thinking of when I wrote this post are those when people truly *choose* to work on a scheduled holiday/weekend. Not that they chose their career (as implied by @AT), but that they made a conscious decision to work on a holiday, with no pressure from a boss, granting agency, or other external force, then chose to walk around holding it over others' heads.

  • Don't you fucken people understand that when someone asks a question like "How was your break?" or "How are you?", they are not actually asking those questions and are not seeking actual answers? How fucken socially clueless do you have to be to not understand that those questions are social fillers, meant no more earnestly than asking as you pass someone in the hall, "How's it going?"

    The only correct answer to these questions is "Good? And you(rs)?" It's just a little social minuet, to demonstrate and reinforce a minor social bond, but without getting involved in an actual conversation.

  • Antagonista says:

    Time off for the holidays were a luxury I couldn't afford this year if I wanted to, thanks to selectively-enforced rigid leave policies and supervisor disapproval of/challenges related to some of my recent life choices. Yeah, I'm grinchy about that. No, I don't want to be asked how my non-holiday was. It was fine, leave me alone please.

    Assuming the circumstances of someone working over a given time frame is assuming too much. Yes, the K3rns suck, but some of us have K3rn leave policies and are not all moral-high-horse about having put in hours on a given date.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Maybe that's just you, Pp. I mean people probably don't want 20min on the Wankees' pitching staff or the subtle differences between rosè sea salt and claret mined salt in your risottos...

  • darchole says:

    Fuck being socially clueless. I give people a *real* answer when they ask how I am/how the weather is/how my break is...these people aren't joe blow from the street that don't know me, they're people I work with who deserve a a real answer to their questions...just as I really do want to know what is happening with them when I ask they same question. I don't want an hour long speech on how their day went, but I don't want OK to be their only answer.

    I don't however, ask how their Christmas went. I work at a religious uni. I'm either going to piss someone off by assuming their religion, or I'm going to out them as not being part of the dominant religion. Not usually going to make anyone happy. It's part of knowing the people you work with (and might be hitting up for help/reagents at some point too...) which was the point of my previous post.

  • becca says:

    Dr. O- I'm not trying to justify/excuse random nasty behavior. There's a lot of nuance in tone/attitude in how to handle these questions with grace, even if one didn't really appreciate the question (whether it was intended as trivial small talk or more literally minded interest in someone's life outside work, which, again, really isn't rocket science to tell from context... though I've seen the overly grinchy/scroogey response occur in both social contexts).
    But I think the question is a little more loaded with unpackaged assumptions than you realized.

    Another example- it's easy to be Grinchy when one doesn't get Christmas time off and one wants Christmas time off (other 'compensatory time' is not the same to everyone- there is a reason why in my Mom's union, when 'bidding' for vacation weeks, it can take 10-20 years seniority to come early enough in the que to get the week of Christmas off. My Mom's birthday being the 21st and mine the 23rd, this came up frequently. This is one I'd chalk up to "academic world privilege", though I guess it's very academic context-dependent. I never noticed it was the week between Christmas and New Years at the med school I did my grad work at. Here where I'm doing my postdoc (a land grant enormous undergrad university) they actually locked everything up for the week, turned down the heat, and it was ghost town well above and beyond 'hmm not many students' you get at other points between semesters. Here it makes a lot more sense to ask someone about their 'break' because it's a much stronger social norm.)

  • Dr. O says:

    @Becca - I actually can conceive of any number of reasons why one might get pissed at the fact they didn't have the luxury of taking time off. And I get that someone may have a less than comfortable response for the question when I ask it, or that someone may be bothered by it. I really don't mind either, but I do mind when someone answers in a way intended to make me and others feel bad for not being in the lab, too. There is plenty of tone and nuance in some people's responses to any number of questions about weekends/evenings/holidays/etc., simply meant to make others feel inferior. That was really all I was trying to communicate about here. Well, that and the fact that, at this moment, the implication that one must work ALL THE TIME to be successful in academia was making me feel even more insecure about my inadequacies for my upcoming career transition than I already do (and yes, this is more my problem than anybody else's).

    My grad and postdoc unis both turn into ghost towns the week between Christmas and New Year's - I know this, because I myself have been around some years during that week to get cultures started, maintain experiments, or take care of a few odds and ends at the desk. This year, MRU turned the heat way down the entire week, and several people made a point of saying they would work from home if they worked at all. I've been asked no fewer than 5 times in the past 72 hours how my "holiday" was, and I've asked the same question and had several conversations with others about the variety of ways in which my coworkers spent their holidays, some working, some traveling, some at home relaxing, some at home not relaxing. I don't ever specifically ask about *Christmas* in the workplace, but I do ask how people spent that week, out of genuine curiosity (contrary to CPP's assumption). If anything, the comments from this post will make me think a little harder before asking that or other questions about "time off" again - for better or for worse - especially considering the fact that my new work environment will undoubtedly be different in some respects.

  • Dr 27 says:

    I recognize that when I first read this entry I was a little furious, not with you, not at you, but at my situation and how I got K3rn3d by having a new job (you'd think I'd be thrilled, but no, I got K3rn3d and not by my choosing).

    2011 was filled with a bunch of crap, and while I should be overall very thankful that I got a job that I like, in a place that I like, much like 'Antagonista' the leave policies of my institution and life choices made not only me, but of some of family members, made for a very frustrating holiday season. Work allows barely 1.5 weeks of vacation, but I can only take advantage of that after working for a certain amount of time (and there's no rollover, FFS!). While I could have talked to my boss about it, he has another person over his head, and that person decides whether I get paid or not. Due to the irresponsible money decisions that my father made, under my name, I was barely able to afford food on Xmas day. So, those 2 things combined and how frustrating it was that I'm missing my (only) nephew's first years, I was extremely irritated, and could have been one of those that (had I been at your institution) would have been a scrooge and lashed out at you. It is not your fault, and I shouldn't take it out on you ... but it is incredibly hard to be happy and in the holiday spirit when every single situation it's pulling you into a state of mind and being that you want to avoid. I did get the fed holidays off, and that was a most-welcomed break. I worked every single day, trying to put on a smile, even when I was dying to be with my mom, my nephew, my sister and hon. But I tried not to have an air of superiority about me ... there's nothing superior (IMO) about working during the holidays only because of work policies (I have nothing against people who celebrate different holidays and take time off at other times of the year, or genuinely see the winter break (or at least slow down of people) as a chance to get stuff done.

    Like Comrade PhysioProf says, the question about how was the holiday time/break/whatever, is only a social convention, and under no circumstances should it be used to lash at people who genuinely had a good year and had the chance to be home or host their family and loved ones. But for some of us the holidays weren't too holiday-ee and sometimes, a genuinely nice question can send us over the edge.

    I am genuinely happy that you, and everyone who got the chance, was able to enjoy the festivities. I am. Don't feel bad about having enjoyed your time. It does suck that choices (either made by us or by others) don't allow some of us to enjoy time off. I do hope to go home at some point when my $$ situation improves. Happy 2012 and congrats on your new TT position.

    • Dr. O says:

      Oh, Dr 27, I really, truly am sorry. I write half of my posts on the fly, and just didn't really think about the kind of circumstances, like yours, that my get unintentionally folded into my rant. I remember last year's Christmas very well, and I certainly didn't want to make someone else feel bad about being in that kind of bad place - that's the last thing you need, really - I am sorry.

      I can't tell you how much I hope things get better this next year for you guys. And I thank you for taking the time to let me know how you felt here. I honestly can take quite a bit of scroogosity from most people, especially those I respect. I just don't have much patience for the type of people who like to brag about how much they work. That clearly didn't come across in this post, based on yours and the others' comments, and I am deeply sorry to you and whoever else I may have offended.

      • Dr 27 says:

        Oh yes, I know some of those. My main issue with coming back to the US (after my stint in Canada) is with the (lack of) time off we get here. It's ridiculous. One of these days I'll tell you a story. Once I cooled off (not by your words, but by remembering the things that kept me from seeing my family), I read the whole post, and trust me when I say this, I got your point. We shouldn't suffer for the scroogey attitude of those who want to feel superior (by auto-k3rning, ha!!!!) by staying in and being all martyr-like. I'm fine if people want (out of the goodness of their hearts, or because they totes love to be in the lab at all hours) to stay ... but if you (not you) have an attitude or air of superiority, and want to make people feel bad for the time they've earned to stay off, then there's really no sympathy on my part. I can't deal that "love" auto-k3rning and then complain about it. No worries 🙂

  • Dr 27 says:

    "There is plenty of tone and nuance in some people's responses to any number of questions about weekends/evenings/holidays/etc., simply meant to make others feel inferior." Oh yes ... I had a couple of special people in grad school who relished the time whenever they got to say that they had been working for 365+ without taking time off (that stuff sends me over the edge). When I was in my 3rd or 4th year in school I was at a party for some 1st years friends of mine. They invited students from other years and this was around Xmas time. There was this woman who, when I mentioned the year I was in (3rd or 4th, can't remember), looked at me and said, "you're still here??"," in your X year?" And I'm like, "ehhh, yes, why?" And she responds with, "well, I'm working my tail off, in fact, I work more than X amount of students and postdocs in my lab, to get done, and I have to say that I haven't taken a single day off because my goal is to get done before my 25th bday." I'd just mentioned that on said year I'd turned 25, while most of the incoming students were in their early 20s. I proceeded to congratulate her and say that that's a good goal, but that others had different timelines and goals and getting done by 25 wasn't one of mine, but that I admired her efforts. She scoffed and then I heard her say to another person that she thought that not only was it insane to stay in school past 25, but that the reason the rest of us weren't done was because we didn't work nearly as hard as she did. Oh how I wish I'd had it in me to punch her (I only found out about this after the party, and luckily I never crossed paths with her again ... she was probably working her tail off in the lab, right?).

  • [...] Evidently not by calling them a Scrooge. Sometimes I think the verbal diarrhea I blog would be better left to Twitter, or the confines of my head, especially if I'm not willing to spend the time making sure the intended message is what my post actually conveys. I intended yesterday's post to be a ranty commentary on individuals who say you can't be successful in academia without working 70 hours a week, regardless of holidays. I'm tired and overwhelmed and insecure about my upcoming transition, and got offended by a brief exchange I overheard in the break room after a sleepless, panic-attack sort of night. I normally blog for self-reflection, but yesterday's post was written hastily. The self-reflection didn't begin until mid-way through the comments on this post, at which point I started wondering how self involved I was, and how many people I've offended the past couple of months by asking "how was your holiday?" [...]

  • Sorry, but no one really gives a fucke about anyone else's vacations, or lack thereof.