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How do I make friends with my monosyllabic cubicle mate?

Iakov Filimonov/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The question

I started a new job recently. Another woman was hired at the same time – we work on the same projects and even got assigned the same lunch break. I spend 9.5 hours each day at her side and I absolutely hate it. I just can't connect with her, no matter how hard I try. I've asked her all the friendly get-to-know-you questions I can think of and only get single-word responses. If I share an anecdote or story about myself, the response is always the same: "oh" or "mm-hm" or "okay," followed by silence. I'm a shy person myself, and all the effort I've poured into forming an amicable relationship with her has been a major step outside my comfort zone. I just want to be on mutually friendly terms so our lunch breaks together are bearable, because right now they're absolutely brutal. What should I do?

The answer

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In two words: Give up. Or: Stop trying. Or I might even go so far as to say: Stop bothering her.

Please forgive me – but I would like to attempt to buttress my remarks by referencing an essay at the nexus of Greek myth and existentialist philosophy: Albert Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus.

Sisyphus, you'll recall, was condemned by the gods eternally to roll a rock to the top of a hill, only to watch it roll back down again. But Camus, in the contrarian's take on it, focuses on Sisyphus's trudge back down the hill – and decides maybe Sisyphus's fate's not so bad after all:

"I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At … those moments … he is superior to his fate. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Being a philosopher, Camus naturally uses somewhat frilly language to make his point. But it always resonated with me. On the occasions when I've worked in an office as a "cubicle drone," that's how I always felt about my lunch break. It was my "hour of consciousness," during which I felt, briefly, "superior to my fate."

For example, when I worked as a TV news writer, I liked my colleagues, especially my main four-person team. We got along like a house on fire – but I didn't always want to have lunch with them. At least a couple times a week I'd go off and read a book by myself or scribble some notes in a notebook toward (talk about a Sisyphean task) a possible future book of my own some day.

I could tell they were puzzled by my "eccentric" noon-time activities: "Why, if we're all going to the Burrito Barn for a good, old-fashioned bitch session, is Dave grabbing a shawarma at the Falafel Hut and heading to the park by himself? I thought we were a team!"

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But my attitude was: "I just lived through a morning of my job and soon will be pushing the rock of the afternoon up the hill – do I also have to talk about it in between?"

Perhaps your colleague feels something along the same lines. Perhaps, hope I'm not being too blunt, she just isn't interested in making a "friendly connection." I don't want to sound too much like the Magic 8-ball (an occupational hazard of being an advice columnist), but all signs point to that conclusion. She simply doesn't want to be friends! And you don't even sound all that keen, yourself. You say you only do it so your lunches don't suck. But your lunches suck more! So stop!

I have yet to hear of an office where your lunch companions are dictated to you. Even in prison (at least according to movies like The Shawshank Redemption) you can choose with whom to sit. So your way is clear: You don't want to befriend your monosyllabic colleague, she doesn't want to be friends with you, so go sit somewhere else, read a book, watch an episode of Breaking Bad on your tablet, chat with someone who actually wants to chat – whatever. That "hour of consciousness" (or half-hour, I suppose, depending on where you work) is precious: Why waste it on someone who's clearly not interested?

Of course, to quote another philosopher, Dex from the movie The Tao of Steve: "We pursue that which retreats from us." As soon as you start to avoid her, you may find her suddenly glomming onto you, and wanting to talk your ear off.

Then you'll have a real problem. If that happens, write me back.

What am I supposed to do now?

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