Getting Ahead

Climbing the Walls

Wednesday, March 14, 2007; 10:54 AM

Strange, flimsy walls covered in carpet you'd never let touch your feet. Odd smells - is that Lean Cuisine or sweaty socks? - wafting through the air. Your co-worker Esmerelda's nasally voice droning on and on about her cat's skin rash - again. It's estimated some 40 million Americans work in Cubiclelands and put up with annoyances like these.

Arlington writer James F. Thompson does time in his own human cattle pen at his day job for a TV network. His experiences working on top of colleagues inspired him to write "The Cubicle Survival Guide" ($13, Villard). Express' Jess Milcetich caught up with Thompson, chatting with him about how to rid yourself of the office lamprey and how to ethically take "sick-of-work" days.

Why did you write this book?

I used to be a teacher, so I wasn't used to the cubicle environment at all. When I first came here, it was really kind of an awkward transition. It was almost like culture shock. I just needed to know the rules and the dos and the don'ts, and I had no way of finding them out except through experiences. One day this guy next to me sneezes. I was like, "Do I have to say ┬┐bless you' because I heard you sneeze but I can't see you?" He said, "You can always e-mail me." I started working on a book about cubicle etiquette a couple of minutes later.

Crying office mates, spying bosses-you make it sound like Cubicleland can be horrible. Have you exaggerated?

A lot of it depends on what you make of it. There's nothing you can do about the reality of working in a cubicle community, and that's why I give a lot of recommendations about putting up decorations and socially what you can do to make your life a little better.

If working in cubicles stinks so much, why did we get stuck toiling in them?

It comes down to the bottom line: companies are trying to maximize profits and minimize expenditures. Cubicles allow them to do that. If they need to expand or downsize, cubicles allow you to do that very easily. But it does give you that sense that everything is temporary and you could be on the street any minute.

You claim, "Cubicles are some of the least hospitable environments on earth." Can you elaborate?

The trick is trying to balance your personal life with your professional life when working in a cubicle. Naturally, most of us want to be ourselves, have our own identities, our own cultures and our own quirks. And when you get into a corporate environment, particularly cubicles, you have to start curtailing some of that. That's what kind of makes it hell, because you're constantly self-editing your words and everything you do - how you decorate your space, how you dress, how you act.

Also, a lot of it depends on your neighbors - if you work with people who are difficult to be around, that's a living hell every day. Fortunately, the people I work with are great. And I'm sure they're listening to this conversation.

You advocate decorating your space to improve morale. But what is off-limits?

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