Team Building Exercises Give Me the Willies

I don’t know what that group of women hoped to accomplish by singing  “I Want You To Want Me” a cappella behind that frosted door at the office across the hall, but it filled me with dread. And that’s not a dig at Cheap Trick.

"I'm sorry, you want me to...what?"

I’ve been working at an office for a few weeks–the kind of temp gig that brings in a little money and allows me to occupy my mind with thoughts other than “how old is too old to work as a temp?” and “where’s that list of writers who made it well into their forties?” The work is not complex but complicated, stacked to the fluorescent lights with a lifetime’s worth of exceptions and band-aid solutions, but the people are quite nice and there are free drinks, which is no small consideration (and not just coffee–tea, a rainbow of juices and a frizzy kick-line of pops).

On the second day I drifted to the elevators for lunch around a quarter past twelve–the set up is standard office architecture, with a bank of eight elevators serving as a hallway between two offices at either end. While I waited for the ding! of my vertical chariot, I heard a strange sound, certainly strange for an office setting: you get used to certain known unknowns (thank you Mr. Rumsfeld), like a muffled dog bark from a progressive company that allows pets in the workplace, or maybe even a cheer of one morale-boosting stripe or another. But what you don’t often hear is singing. And it gave me the creeps.

Now, I should stop and mention something about Joseph Heller.

Of course, Catch-22 remains his lasting mark on the world of literature and has even the dubious honor of blind argot use, that is to say used by people who know what it means by inference and not through genuine exposure and, odds are, wouldn’t know Joseph Heller if he crept out of his grave and corrected them on their usage.

One wonders the awesome weight of that sophomore curse, one so confident that it cockblocked the keyboard of Heller’s typewriter so adroitly that it took thirteen years for his follow-up, Something Happened.

I like Something Happened (almost as much as Good as Gold which even at sixteen I found instantly identifiable, a testament to Heller’s gifts as I was not a middle-aged Jewish university professor set to work on the “Jewish experience” in America). I like it a lot and it starts with one  of my all-time favourite, chilling and internally quoted lines I’ve ever read:

“I get the willies when I see closed doors.”

I do get the willies when I see closed doors, but perhaps even more able to inspire skin contractions and foot sweat is the existence of closed frosted doors. They are the visual corollary to an overhead conversation muffled through a patchy hotel wall: you can never actually hear what is said and instead must rely on interpretations of that spike in volume or the silence that ensues. An accusation followed by quiet acquiescence? Or is it merely a grumpy pal yelling at a friend to turn off the light so he can get some goddamn sleep? Who can tell?

That’s what closed frosted doors do to me. First, why are they frosted? What’s so important/nefarious that requires misty obfuscation? Why not take your malfeasance behind a solid oak door for Christ’s sake and let me get to lunch in peace?

Worse is when a person appears behind the door, as in the picture above. Who is that? Man or woman? Why are there balloons? Why, if there are balloons–a hackneyed signal of celebration second only to the “welcome home” banner–do you need the frosting? And further still, why are those opaque doors still closed?

I say “worse”, which in the normal course of my life would have been the end of it. That’s about as bad as it gets, I would think, a set of closed frosted doors that give me the willies.

Until I heard the singing.

Alarming. I don’t know how else to describe it. A group of women singing with a forced verve that bordered on firing squad final words in the stanza:

I want you to want me

I need you to need me

I’d love you to love me

I’m beggin’ you to beg me

Where’s the HR Department? Does any of this sound work appropriate? If it wasn’t set to music, these four lines would constitute harassment and lead to a disciplinary hearing.

The ladies picked up the pace with:

Didn’t I, didn’t I, didn’t I see you crying?

But returned to dirge mode when they went back to the meat of the song.

"Come on, ladies--we've done that song 14, 000 times and we put more into it!"

For a week and a half, every day they practiced. I guess they did–it sounded exactly the same each time I heard it so I suppose it could have been a recording. Maybe the outgoing message on their office answering machine. Unlikely as there was no instruction on what to do in their absence (honestly, we’ve had this technology for decades, does every outgoing message have to come with directions?).

Outside of the willies-inducing part of joyless voices charging through a 1977 classic rock mainstay, there was the haunting aspect of the whole endeavor. The voices emanated from behind those goddamned frosted doors, almost incorporeal in their detachment.

That’s when it occurred to me that the doors may not have factored into it at all: maybe this was another corporately mandated team-building exercise botched at the regional level, perhaps only to be outdone by the Mississauga office that chose “Sexual Healing” as their noon-hour pick-me-up.

I understand the impulse behind these rah-rah routines, but all it does is make people do things they don’t want to do which, in this case, resulted in a languid reading of a song that, at its very soul, is an urgent defense of obsessive love. Those who engage in these activities with zeal look like career-minded ass-kissers, and those who don’t are deemed trouble makers. Team-building in any situation happens all on its own over bitchy lunches and drunken after-work parties, the way nature intended.

Office politics–they give me the willies, too.


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