3 Insights From a Fun New Book About Office Weirdness

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People In Office, Blurred.
Photo: Eric Audras/PhotoAlto/Corbis

When it comes to books about the workplace, there’s no shortage of long, weighty works about how to get that next promotion, how to win friends and influence people, how to improve your self confidence or gain the respect of others. Works Well With Others: An Outsider’s Guide to Shaking Hands, Shutting Up, Handling Jerks, and Other Crucial Skills in Business That No One Ever Teaches You is not this sort of book.

Written by Esquire senior editor Ross McCammon and released earlier this month, Works Well With Others consists of 52 very short chapters on everything from handshakes to how to deal with resentful co-workers, some of them just a few short paragraphs of McCammon riffing on the subject in question. It’s clear McCammon has trouble taking the idea that there’s any one true path to workplace success that seriously — his own career trajectory, which involved moving to New York to take his dream job at Esquire a decade ago, has entailed too many awkward moments and insecure hang-ups for him to portray himself as an expert.

Any time you have an etiquette guide, I think you should be really skeptical about it, about rules and human behaviors, because I think so much of it is mysterious,” he explained to Science of Us. In other words: Yes, maybe at the margins there are things you can do to make yourself a more effective employee (McCammon suggests a healthy dose of drinking at work, for example — only in meetings, though, and never more than a couple drinks), but a lot of how we relate to our bosses and colleagues comes down to pheromones and gut-level judgments and other aspects of human weirdness that are probably beyond your control.

So the best we can do, then, is adopt what insights we can from the literature — this isn’t a science-heavy book, but McCammon does draw regularly from social and workplace psychology — without taking ourselves too seriously. Embrace the weirdness and awkwardness and insecurity of the workplace.

Here are three takeaways from McCammon’s very entertaining book:

1. Kick-start (or resuscitate) any interview or conversation with one simple type of question.

In Works Well With Others, McCammon relays a story of having to interview the supermodel Bar Refaeli for Esquire in 2009 and quickly running through his prewritten questions, which he suspects she finds boring. On the spot, he comes up with a simple question: He asks her how she models. As in, what technical skills are involved. Quickly, the interview starts going smoother and getting more interesting, leading McCammon to conclude, as he writes, that “People love talking about what they actually do for a living. Not their jobs but their work.”

It’s amazing just how much time we spend doing our jobs, right?” he said. “There’s so much technical stuff — even if you don’t have a technical job, there are so many little technical things that even your partner or spouse might not know about, just these little triumphs or bursts of creativity, or failures, mistakes, that go into a single workday. And I’m kind of obsessed with those small things, those little mistakes.” To McCammon, when you’re backed into a conversational corner, asking someone not what they do but how they do it is a surefire way out.

2. Understand the difference between “assholes” and “pricks.”

This one’s important. Office life brings with it a lot of pressure, and people react to pressure in different, and oftentimes unpleasant, ways. McCammon endorses a careful approach to distinguishing “pricks” from “assholes.” Pricks, in this model, are people who sometimes react to work pressure by exhibiting increased snippiness, antisocialness, or other characteristics. McCammon self-identifies as a prick sometimes. “That’s what I am when I’m stressed out,” he said.

Assholes, on the other hand, are always that way — it’s just their disposition. And to McCammon, distinguishing between the two subspecies of co-worker is really important. “You don’t have to work with everyone, or work well with everyone,” he said. “I think sometimes you just have to say [of assholes], Okay, I see you, I know the score here, and you kind of get around them.” Pricks, on the other hand, “I think you should empathize with,” because they’re under stress and doing the best they can. Anyone can slip into prick mode, in other words — not everyone is an asshole.

3. If you want to really evaluate how you feel about someone, give them the “Two Beers and a Puppy” test.

Both the office and, more broadly, life entail lots of interactions with people you’re not quite sure about. Maybe they’re fun in some settings but not in others; maybe they have moments of brilliant talent mixed with astounding incompetence. When you encounter people like this, McCammon recommends a simple test in which you ask yourself two questions: “Would I have two beers with this person?” and “Would I allow this person to look after my puppy over a weekend?”

Some people are yes and yes, and those are the best people in your life,” McCammon said. “Hopefully you were raised by people like that. Hopefully those are your friends. And then there’s the no and no people — those are the assholes.” Yes-beer, no-puppy people “are to be cautiously trusted,” he writes in the book, while no-beer, yes-puppy people “are no fun but they make the world a better place — for puppies, especially.” Whatever the results of a given iteration of the “Two beers and a puppy game,” said McCammon, “it’s always revealing” to ask these questions.