Spectrum: Empty Gray Chair

Picture of gray chair

Ostracization, rejection, and isolation happen.

More Pieces from the Seamless Pocket

About five years ago, my then-supervisor hired an outside contractor to help us with a large writing project. I liked him instantly: T. was intense, funny, and smart. I felt that affinity I feel when I’m with people whose minds work like mine. “Someone I can talk with!” I thought. And I could talk with him, like myself, without changing my natural style, without limiting enthusiasm, without stifling my gestures, or dulling my “big eyes,” which is the look I get when I’m intensely interested in a topic. And he could talk to me, too. We didn’t talk that much because it was a work environment, but it felt great to have someone around whose mind resonated with mine.

A few months after he completed his contract and left for another job, I walked in on my office-mates talking about him. I won’t write what they said verbatim–it was too mean, and I don’t want to feel those words travel through my fingers into the keyboard. They didn’t like the way he ate his apple every afternoon. They couldn’t stand the way he asked if he could keep the apple in the fridge. They didn’t like how he stood, how he sat, where he looked when he talked, how much he talked, and how he combed his hair. And his shirts!

“Wait,” I said to them. “Are you talking about T?”

They were.

“I like him!” I said.

They laughed, turned their shoulders, and continued to talk with animated vitriol, gleeful in their disdain.

These were our team-members, our work team, my office-mates! This was the assistant who greeted everyone with a charming smile and a sweet voice. This was my work partner who listened with patience to everyone, including me. Did they truly hate him so much? 

It seemed they did, for it wasn’t only that afternoon that they tore him down. It happened repeatedly, no matter how much I defended him or protested or pointed out his strengths. No matter how I much I reminded them that he was another human being, doing his best. 

I felt deeply hurt that they would talk about him like that. First, it confused me that people who could seem so friendly, polite, and accepting to everyone would harbor those feelings–and not show them. Second, I couldn’t believe that they would feel this way–and talk this way–about someone who worked with us, someone we should go out of our way to include and make welcome. 

Third, the things they criticized were not things that he could, likely, change–or that he should have to change. There was nothing wrong with them. They were, simply, the signs of a neurodivergent, likely autistic, highly gifted individual. It wasn’t like he was doing things intentionally to bother them, annoy them, or anger them. He was being himself–and that infuriated them.

He wasn’t perfect–I knew this. We had to rewrite much of his work, and I overheard him make some less-than-appropriate comments to people he was interviewing over the phone. But these weren’t the things they criticized, and certainly even these few limitations didn’t warrant such harsh rejection.

I came to realize that part of the reason this upset me, aside from the pain of seeing another mistreated and the confusion that people I trusted and thought of as friends–or at least, collegial work-mates–could be so mean, was because I identified with him. When he began working with us, my thoughts were, “At last! Someone like me!”

And the things that he was rejected for were traits that could belong to me, too.

A few years later, we all moved into one big office, with individual cubicles in the corners.  My work hours begin later than the others, and this left most of the morning for them to talk with each other before I arrived. About midway through last year, I noticed a shift toward me. I might miss a lot of social signals, but my intuition towards gossip and exclusion has been sharpened through a lifetime of standing outside the gossiping circles. I picked up signals that, in the mornings before I arrived, my work partner and the assistant sometimes talked about me, and I could tell that it wasn’t in a kind way.

My work partner, whom I’d considered a friend during the many years that the two of us shared an office, began to stop greeting me, unless I greeted her first, cut conversations short, and turn her shoulders away from me. The assistant remained friendly, but I think it was often a fake smile, and she spoke with the same sweet voice she uses on the phone when she’s speaking to someone she doesn’t like.

Maybe I’d said something insensitive. Maybe I’d been too assertive. Maybe I seemed like I thought I knew more about our joint project. Maybe, and most likely, I had just been myself, and who I am–the way my mind works, the way I talk, the way I look and stand and move, and the way I express myself–is different, and it’s the differentness that they, finally, could stand no more.

My former work partner retired at the start of summer. I wanted to take her out to lunch to celebrate our ten years of having worked together and shared an office. I wanted to wish her well. We both love to garden, and I hoped she would let me treat her to a lunch at the botanical gardens. 

“No, I’m good,” she said, turning back to her computer. 

And that was it. We gave her a big gift of an oversized clay pot which we all painted and filled with seeds, gardening tools, and sparkly garden art. I volunteered to buy all the goodies that filled the pot, and I went to the garden center which is her and my favorite. It felt good to stuff the pot with our good feelings and to paint it with our well-wishes. And that was the goodbye. I haven’t heard from her since she left. Ten years of working together daily, covering for each other, sharing many conversations, some quite personal, and some even spiritual–and it’s over, like that. Maybe I’ll run into her someday at the garden center. Or maybe I won’t see her again.

I don’t know why people reject others who are different. I have an idea that it’s sociobiological–that people feel, on a very deep level, an impulse to drive those they reject out of the village so we won’t procreate and so that, even if we should, our resources would be too scarce for our offspring to survive. I think it’s a sociobiological impulse, not a conscious decision.

In looking for support for this idea, I found a 2015 article by Wirth, Bernstein, and LeRoy, titled “Atimia: A New Paradigm for Investigating How Individuals Feel When Ostracizing Others,” which posited that people rejected those who felt burdensome to them, meaning they didn’t help them achieve their goals. Unlike previous studies cited in this article, in which participants were directed to reject others and then reported feeling guilty or badly for doing so, their study posited that individuals felt no guilt or remorse when the motivation to reject and exclude the others came from themselves. 

When my officemates rejected T, they displayed no remorse–even when his strengths and his humanity were pointed out, even though these are people who would describe themselves as kind and compassionate. They displayed joy when he left our employment, and glee when they talked about whatever it was that they disdained in him. 

In my braver moments, I’ve sometimes responded to the happiness that others feel when being mean towards me by thinking and saying, “Well, at least they’re getting some joy out of the experience! At least I can bring them a little bit of happiness, even if it’s at my expense!” But that’s kind of a martyr’s approach, and it doesn’t serve the greater good in that it comes close to condoning meanness. We don’t have to be slaves to our sociobiological impulses–we can pause and observe and note them, without acting upon them. And I feel the happiness we get in doing so, in accepting and valuing diversity. Even when that means that we accept the possibility of diverse gene pools, that happiness is something solid at base, whereas the gleefulness stemming from meanness has nothing solid at its core.

Work Cited

Wirth, James H., et al. “Atimia: A New Paradigm for Investigating How Individuals Feel When Ostracizing Others.” Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 155, no. 5, Sept. 2015, pp. 497–514. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00224545.2015.1060934.

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