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Ask Pajiba (Almost) Anything: Co-Worker Drama, From Sauerkraut To Sadness

By Tori Preston | Miscellaneous | March 20, 2018 |

By Tori Preston | Miscellaneous | March 20, 2018 |


If you can’t solve your problem with either fire or a bear trap, is it even really a “problem” at all? No, that’s not this week’s advice question — that’s more like our constant mission statement here at Ask Pajiba (Almost) Anything. This week we’ve got a double-whammy lined up for you, both centered around a fairly constant adult-life thorn: co-workers. More specifically: weird office smells, and also emotional honesty. Can you guess which question the Overlords felt more confident tackling?

(Reminder: Send all your weirdest, wildest, and most pressing concerns to the Overlords at [email protected] and let us find ways for you to light them on fire, or bear-trap them. Or maybe we’ll have some useful advice for you! Anything is possible. And if you’ve already written to us and we haven’t gotten around to answering you yet, fear not — we’ve gotten a lot of interesting questions in the ol’ digital mailbag lately that we still working our way through. It’s nothing personal. We’re just easily distracted.)

Earlier this year we addressed the evergreen topic of Strong Perfumes And The Officemates Who Insist On Dousing Themselves In Them. But as anyone with desk jockey experience knows, there is a whole other world of untapped terrible office smells. I’m gonna call them “Microwaved Horrors” — and even within that category, this poor reader is facing an odor like no other.

Dear Overlords,

A few months ago, a forlorn soul asked for your advice concerning people who wear rank perfumes/colognes to work or use other kinds of fragrances around their desks. I don’t have that problem. In fact, due to coworker allergies, my place of employment has a strict no fragrance policy—as demonstrated by the recent passive-aggressive battle over who was using air fresheners in the bathroom.

But the Great Bathroom Battle of 2017 isn’t the point. The point is that someone is bringing in sauerkraut for lunch. They store it in a glass jar in the communal fridge and then they heat it up, everyday at noon, in the communal microwave. The stink was so bad today that I literally thought someone had dumped rotting garbage somewhere on the floor. I even spent a good couple of minutes sniffing around my desk, worried that somehow my inoffensive cup of soup had somehow mutated into a noxious blob.

But no, it was the sauerkraut. It’s always the sauerkraut.

What do you think I should do? Should I just grin and bear it and hope that my coworker gets tired of their lunch routine? Should I lead my coworkers in rebellion and burn the fermented cabbage in Smokers’ Alley?

Please gift me with your wisdom, O Great and Powerful Overlords.

Thanks in advance,

Sauer for Fermented Cabbage Kraut

Dear Sauer,

I’ma answer you, but first let me say:


DAMN! It never occurred to me that fermented cabbage can/should be heated up, but I mean, why not right? And I like sauerkraut! But even so, sauerkraut doesn’t seem like a standalone kind of food. Does this person literally just nuke up a big ol’ bowl of ‘kraut and nom down, or is it part of a larger meal plan involving, I dunno, pickled eggs and sardines and composted veggie scraps?

But I digress. Can we take a moment to acknowledge the sheer balls on this mysterious hot cabbage co-worker? Maybe they are eating the sauerkraut for healthy gut reasons, or because they were raised on it and they just love it — but either way, they absofuckinglutely know what they are doing to their colleagues. Most of us, if we were to even consider pulling such a stunt, would immediately consider the odorous outcome. And surely this person did as well — AND THEN DECIDED THEIR HOT ‘KRAUT LUNCH WAS MORE IMPORTANT THAN YOUR NOSTRILS OR WORKPLACE COMFORT. That level of shamelessness is frankly commendable, and I think you and your other officemates need to accept that this isn’t the act of a clueless person. This is pointed, and maybe even personal. Your co-worker knows they are causing you all distress, and they do not give a fermented fuck. They are establishing their domain, one nuked dish of sauerkraut at a time, as though they were taking a steaming piss on your communal kitchen to mark their territory.

And now I’m maybe just talking myself into hero worship. So, what should YOU do in the face of such obvious olfactory scare tactics? Well, even confrontation-averse Dustin said he’d step up if he were in your shoes, and start announcing every day something along the lines of, “GOD, that sauerkraut smells AWFUL. You’re KILLING us, Shelly!” (He, uh, apparently assumes daily sauerkraut consumers are all named Shelly — just roll with it). Jodi recommends knocking the jar out of the fridge when nobody is looking, and then maybe puking on it for good measure. Exert your own terrifying dominance. Genevieve, ever practical, said you should recruit anyone sitting near the kitchen into your crusade — presumably to form an angry office mob, or at least concoct some sort of passive-aggressive battle conducted through pointed notes and lingering glances. Though I wonder whether shame-by-overwhelming-numbers would have any impact on such a hardened jerk.

Ursula confessed her own lunchtime sins, to put things in context: “First of all, I love sauerkraut, full stop. I don’t eat it at work. But what I do eat at work is broccoli. Every single day. Twice a day. And canned salmon. And canned tuna. And yeah, I get that it’s a potent smell. But you know what else is a potent smell? The fucking McDonald’s the woman who sits behind me eats on a regular basis. She doesn’t want to smell my broccoli, and I don’t want to smell her cheeseburger. But I’m not going to ask her to stop eating her preferred food, and she won’t ask me to change mine either.”

And she’s got a point. While I can imagine that the scent of microwaved sauerkraut could be distasteful to people (except, perhaps, to people who were raised eating it and find it comforting and very normal), everyone has their own food smell aversions. So where do you draw the line? No hot food, period? I once worked in an office that was situated right next to the floor’s communal kitchen. Outside of my office was a desk, where one of the executive assistants sat. And she, apparently, found every food-related smell distasteful. I mean, I would hear her bitching loudly, every goddamn day, about whatever leftovers people were heating up in the kitchen. Then she’d stand up and start marching back and forth down the hall, spraying Lysol like it was holy water. To me, the chemical flowery scent of the Lysol was far worse than whatever smell was wafting out of the kitchen. And here’s the thing: none of the leftovers people were heating up were that outlandish. We’re talking, like, lasagna. Maybe stir-fry. Gawd help someone if they decided to bring in some delicious curry. One day I brought my own leftovers in — a chicken/cheddar/broccoli casserole — and the smell drove her absolutely apeshit. I don’t know if she knew it was me, but she was sitting outside my office bitching about the scent to anyone who walked past. So I, naturally, started making that casserole every week just to fuck with her.

Point is, I’m an asshole. But I also think that she was an asshole too, and sometimes people need to suck it up when it comes to letting their colleagues eat their goddamn lunch without judgement. Especially if that person is bringing in food from home to save money, rather than going out to buy lunch (which is another very real possibility in this case), or is maybe eating a food that is entirely normal to them and only seems weird to you. Cultural sensitivity! Personally, I love smelling almost any food because it just makes me want to eat different things — it all comes down to perspective. Just like with fragrances, some people are simply more sensitive than others. So the question becomes — is your sensitivity justified and/or is their insensitivity especially egregious in this scenario?

Here’s what I think you need to consider:

- how many people are impacted by the ‘kraut stench? Do your fellow colleagues agree with you?

- how long does the smell linger?

- are there steps you can take to guard yourself from the smell, like taking your own lunch break at the same time and vacating the area?

- and finally: is the smell impacting your ability to get your job done?

Luckily for your, your office is already proactive when it comes to scents and fragrances, so you actually have a pretty good chance of getting HR to step in if you complain about how the sauerkraut smell is giving you headaches and/or nausea. So kick this issue up the ladder, and hope the Sauerkraut Bandit isn’t actually your boss… but also be careful not to make the person feel ashamed of their dietary choices, unless they really are doing it to be spiteful. Which, again, I would actually respect the hell out of, and have literally done myself.

Alright, I think I’ve said about all there is to say about THAT. Next up is a time-sensitive and very sad question:

I love reading your advice articles and since I am confused about much that goes on in this world, I assumed I would have an inane question for you guys one day. However, I have a serious question that I desperately need help with. I have a friend at work that I have known since I started working here almost five years ago. He is a smart, funny, sarcastic guy who sometimes makes me insane but who I’m very happy that I know. For the last four years, he has been battling a rare form of cancer and has traveled around the country to get treatment, and for a while it seemed that it was working. This week he got the news from his latest scan that it has spread everywhere and he only has a few weeks left. Obviously this is devastating, especially as he is leaving behind a baby who will never know him. Our office gathered today to hear this news and we were asked to each write a card to him to let him know how we feel about him and how he has touched our lives. This was said as an idea and of course nobody is required to do this if it makes them feel uncomfortable. I very much want to write this card to him but I just have absolutely no idea of how to start or what to say to someone who is going to die in weeks. I know that since none of you know him (or me) that you can’t give any specifics, but have any of you faced this before? I want to tell him that cancer fucking sucks and that this isn’t fair but he already knows this. I would like to give him even one second of a smile or laugh but I just don’t know how.




Dear Heartbroken,

Wow. Wowowow. None of us have faced quite this situation before, but there is sort of two things going on here: How to formulate your feelings and address someone’s mortality directly, and how to tread that line when it’s a co-worker — which is its own very weird social context. So for now, let’s set aside the office aspect and focus on your relationship with your colleague.

How close are you two? How well do you know each other? If you knew him outside of work and heard about his diagnosis, what would you want to do for him? Some people want to face their fears with a laugh, so maybe sincerity isn’t the way to go — but then again, offering up jokes in this situation might not be appreciated. One option would be to focus on sharing one memory of him that sticks out in your mind — a single moment that shows he made an impact on those around him, even if it isn’t that serious. You can write it down, or take him to lunch or something and say it in person.

Maybe his top concern right now is his family, so you could try to organize people to contribute funds toward hiring a photographer — that way his child can grow up with pictures of his/her father. Or hell, maybe the office could pay for it! But that might be too personal. You could drop food off at his house, so dinner is one less thing they have to worry about in their time left together. It all depends on the nature of your relationship and how comfortable you both are with each other.

It sounds to me like this person is important to you — important enough that you wanted to write to us for advice — so I wouldn’t worry so much about the office expectations. Focus on what feels true to your relationship, and him personally. In my experience, when a job starts getting involved in the personal life shit of employees, and dragging their co-workers into it, it’s awkward for everybody. One job I had took deaths in the family so seriously, they would book a bus and drive people from the office to a co-worker’s mother’s funeral to show support. Which is a nice gesture, but don’t you think the co-worker wants to grieve without having to worry about thanking their bosses for going to all that effort? And even though technically there was no requirement to attend… the people who opted to stay and work instead of going to the funeral were absolutely judged by the higher-ups. The same goes for these cards. It’s a nice gesture, but a) your friend has better things to do with his remaining time than read through a stack of notes from his co-workers, and b) if you actually know him well, you should be free to do what you want anyway.

Steven was so against the idea of office-mandated cards, he said he’d probably end up writing something sarcastic like, “Hello Work Acquaintance, our mutual boss required me to write you this note of genuine sadness over the fact that you found a loophole in the requirement of giving two weeks notice. I am deeply saddened because now we will have to hire someone to replace you, and they will likely be a horrible person who microwaves fish. While not memorable, your presence was generally unoffensive and your work was adequate. Salutations on your next endeavour.” But again, that’s contingent on the person really being your friend and knowing it’s a joke. And then, presumably, you following up with something that is genuine.

What I’m trying to say is that I have absolutely no idea what you should say or do, but whatever you decide — make sure it’s rooted in your relationship to each other, and to your understanding of who he is as a person. Even if that means you simply tell him you don’t know what to say, but you’ll miss him and you’re there if he needs anything. To do anything less than something genuine would be a waste of both your time.

And that’s all for this edition! Next week we’ve got another tough subject to take aim at, which is the closest to an advice spoiler I’ll be giving. BE INTRIGUED.