“Can We Please Bring Back the Casual Workplace Death Threat?” by Mike Fowler

Jul 19th, 2017 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

Editor’s Note: I’ll use the term “trigger warning” here because it’s a pun. But also, if you can’t already tell by the title, the piece that follows may be triggering to those who have experienced workplace violence (or any violence, for that matter). There is no actual violence in this, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. On with the show…

As one who has been showing up at the office for over 20 years, I recall the days when I would arrive at 8 a.m. on Monday, and in response to my coworker’s sleepy, “Hey, Mike, ready for another week in the salt mines?” I’d return a cheery, “What I’m ready for is to bring an assault rifle into this hellhole and blast everyone and everything to kingdom come.” And my coworker, and anyone else who overheard me, including perhaps my boss and the personnel director and the head of security, would smile and nod as if I had hit the nail on the head. They knew of course that I didn’t really mean it because, well, it was Monday morning and I was Mike, who had worked there for decades without harming a fly, and who would eventually retire or die from inhaling toner and wouldn’t dare do anything dramatic before then. Besides, at the time nobody in his right mind said anything like that and actually meant it. Nobody except a few nervous postal workers, and who cared about them?

But if I were to good-humoredly threaten to kill someone on the job now, fidgety Mildred who sits in the pod across from mine would hit the alarm button, and I’d be ushered out the back door by armed security without even having time to grab my family picture from my desk, or use the men’s room one last time. And I, dull old Mike with less than 10 years to go before I attend my retirement party at the Chinese place across the street, would have only myself to blame. The thing is, times have changed. We’ve all been conditioned to take death threats seriously, no matter how light-heartedly they may be intended, and the humor is now gone from them, as it is from almost all work discussions. Your flip remark that you’d like to put a staple in someone’s heart or feed their tongue into the paper shredder, guaranteed to plaster a smile on anyone’s face 20 or so years ago, is now met with outright concern and even hostility.

Looking back, I think the first sign that office death threats had moved beyond the pale was the day my boss announced that from now on we employees must behave civilly, as probably your boss told you, too. Typical office deportment, in other words, was stood on its head. Thus, it was no longer permissible for me to stand up at meetings and say, “Mildred is a clueless renegade who is undermining the entire unit.” Hardly a death threat, but still, this was now too personal and direct. Instead I had to complain about Mildred without once mentioning her by name, saying, “There are instances of cluelessness and renegadeness in our unit that are making things hard on me and on everybody, and I would appreciate it if everyone would work on this, particularly Mildred.” Of course in the end I had to mention Mildred anyway, since it was impossible not to unless I glued my lips together. There was also the result, only to be expected, that many quips that would have been riotously funny not long ago were now outlawed: lines such as “Is that your nose, Betty, or are you breathing through a potato?” and “Ralph, you always look like you’re choking on a pubic hair.” In the past, everyone would have doubled up in laughter at bon mots as sweet as these, everyone except perhaps Betty and Ralph, but now they were unsayable, and had to be replaced with such limp shafts as “Hey, Betty, Ralph, don’t take this the wrong way, but you guys are awesome.” Since such remarks aren’t worth the expenditure of oxygen needed to speak them, it has become preferable to say nothing at all, to the detriment of office esprit.

Hard on the heels of enforced civility came political correctness and the shunning of the microaggression. When I first entered the workforce those few score years ago, it was perfectly fine, and even expected, to criticize the race and sexuality of one’s coworkers using the baldest stereotypes, and to ape them with crude gestures and funny accents, and even costumes and makeup. Everybody did it, and provided they did it sotto voce and off in a corner, and also at the holiday skit, everyone had a good laugh and no one got hurt. People also shared the raunchiest sex stories and the most back-stabbing gossip at the water cooler and in the elevator, and this counted as valuable networking. Why have we abandoned these standards that served us so well in the past and made the workplace so much happier than it is now?

Just imagine what would happen today if you went up to the unit secretary and told her, “Annette, I really like the way your dress accentuates your breasts.” Or if you approached your new boss and said, “Pap, I didn’t know they knew about business back in the holler.” Comments such as these, considered innocent pleasantries only a short while ago, and appreciated by speaker and audience alike for their openness and joie de vivre, are now thought to contain the sexism and elitism that they obviously do contain. They might even be punishable by job loss unless satisfactory penance is performed, and where’s the fun in that? I’ll tell you where the fun is: nowhere. Work is where fun goes to die.

So can we just stop taking ourselves so seriously all the time, and get back to blowing off a little steam by making insincere death threats at work, which everyone loves to deliver and hear? To make this not only fun but fair, let’s stipulate that those who make the death threats today must be the ones to receive them tomorrow, so that everybody gets to act insane. Once we again take pleasure in these harmless utterances, and realize that our coworkers’ references to guns and bombs and knives do not signal any ill intent, but are only expressions of sympathy and kinship, then all sorts of good times will follow.

Don’t believe me? So I’m going to dig a hole in your chest with a letter opener and fill it with Wite-Out. Kidding!

Defenestration-Michael FowlerMike Fowler has been in Defenestration so many times he practically owns stock in the magazine. And by stock, of course, we mean delicious waffles. He’s all about self-promotion these days, so go buy his book.

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