We sat at a conference table in a rather small room, seven of us employees. The concept of “personal space” did not exist at that workplace.
Najla, the coworker seated opposite to me, would walk around office barefooted. She had an olive complexion, but her feet were mostly a light gray because the office’s floor was far from clean. She would swing her legs and accidentally have them bump into mine. The room would be filled with the smell of sweaty feet I had to spray perfume under the table, but the woman was shameless.
Seated to my right was Basma. She would sneakily peer at my laptop’s screen then gossip about me through Hangouts with her friend, Yasmin, who sat opposite to her and wore a nicotine-based perfume. I would bluntly stare at Basma’s screen, but she never noticed because the two were busy inventing a love life I wish existed. I was consumed by work with no time for meeting a sweetheart nor considering the ordeal.
Norah, whose real face was hidden beneath thick layers of cheap makeup, spent almost every day spreading rumors, painting her crooked toenails and chewing large chunks of strawberry bubblegum. She portrayed herself as classy and fashionable when she was far enough from being affiliated with any of the two terms.
There was also Nadia, who listened to Adele’s Hello through a headset that acted as loudspeakers, and if told to put the volume down, she’d meet the request with deaf ears or, occasionally, with a stare of fake disbelief.
In a book cabinet and in between books, Marwan stored jars of za’atar, olives and makdous, along with a couple of small plates, a bottle of olive oil and a plastic bag of Arabic bread (pita). The glass containers were greasy on the outside to the point where they were decorated with little hairs, dust, fingerprints and tiny dead insects.
I was new to their world but, surprisingly, I enjoyed it. I was awed every day by their demeanor, customs, ideologies and interests. I had exciting topics to write about in my diary and to my friends abroad every night. Certain incidents made me laugh while others repulsed me, but both emotions were welcome. Who would want to be in a dull emotional state? Life would pass slower than ever if not for unexpected, intense emotions.
That was how I survived.
Until this very day, I look back and cannot imagine how I merrily survived my coworkers before I became the sole target of their constant bullying—that was when I could no longer survive.
The key to surviving impolite society—as long as it isn’t directly harmful to your mental and emotional wellbeing—is enjoying it and embracing the shock, but make sure you don’t turn into one of them. Some of those people actually became characters in a novel I was writing.
Also, understand that this case can be seen anywhere around the world, and not only where you are. So, whether you live in Damascus or in London, it is very likely that you will come across coworkers who have no manners, and this means you need to always and everywhere be equipped with your survival kit.
In an article published in the Independent in 2007, British politician, historian and journalist, Boris Johnson, wrote: “London is deeply uncivilised now and public space has become uncouth. There has been a universal outbreak of incivility and we’re all too terrified to say anything to people who are misbehaving because we don’t want to get stabbed, and that isn’t London-specific, it’s everywhere.”
Your best equipment would be not taking any of what they do personally, enjoying their alienness and improving your immunity to their behavior. Think of them as characters in an amusing work of fiction.