Winter Gloves and Workplace Stress

“You need someone to follow you around, huh?”

The ranking executive at my office delivers this line brusquely and stalks away, leaving my winter gloves on the desk.

Dr. L must have spotted my gloves, forgotten on the reception desk, when he arrived at the office right after me. His car failed to start the evening before, and he was going to spend the whole day stressing about it. The gloves must have seemed like a casual affront from a blissfully negligent employee.

He picked up the gloves, walked over to my cubicle, dropped them on my desk, and stood there in stony silence. I exclaimed over them, thanking him and asking where he found them, subsiding into silence as I realized he wasn’t talking. Finally, he delivered his one-liner rebuke and walked off.

It was early in the morning. No one else was there.

I am a liberally-educated former academic with a Master’s degree and a PhD-in-progress. I have graduate-level courses in feminism, queer and trans theory under my belt, not to mention my lengthy exposure to university-campus politics. I know exactly why this exchange just happened and what was wrong with it, and I can explain it using several different theorists from a variety of philosophical disciplines, but it doesn’t matter, because there is nothing to do about it and no one to complain to. Not really. Not for a minor incident.

I try to forget it and get back to work.

Some people don’t experience stress as an emotion. We don’t feel any differently when we are stressed. We don’t even notice there is anything wrong; what we notice, instead, is that other people seem to be particularly stupid lately. Other people have suddenly become so unbearably stupid that they can only be doing it on purpose. So we get mad at them and snap at them.

We are the emotional drunks of stress, genuinely convinced that we are not stressed, offering to fight anyone who suggests it. Anyone else can see it in our gait; they can smell it on us. But we are oblivious; we won’t figure it out for weeks.

I figure out my boss’ vitriol, from months ago, in the same week that I figure out why other people have seemed so unbearably stupid lately and why I have been so impatient with them. It’s stress; that’s what stress feels like; my boss and I experience stress exactly the same.

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