Learn Something From the Quiet Ones

You run into a lot of characters at work. You have the frenzied, nervous one, the methodical one and the one that’s often exasperated. Some workers are always tired and dragging, and others are constantly running around like they’ve had three shots of espresso. Some kiss up to the boss at every chance, and others rebel. Some workers want you to know they’re really too smart for this job and others will accept any kinds of abuse because they want the security of the paycheck.

Then there’s the drama and tension in the workplace, and I always had regrets when I succumbed to either. It doesn’t matter if you’re in an office or loading trucks for a living. I’ve done both, and in both jobs, personalities are the same.

One of the first full time jobs I had was in a factory on the south side of Chicago. I worked the four-to-midnight shift. It could be an intense scene. Machines were insanely loud. We had to yell to be heard. There were about a dozen workers on the night shift, and only one supervisor. He chose not to see a lot of things as long as production was good. Some guys drank on the job.

They had pocket bottles of whiskey or cheap wine that they’d stuff in their pants or hide somewhere close. A couple of guys would snort coke in the bathroom and come out ready to go. There was once a fistfight in the parking lot, and another time a guy on the floor attacked another guy with a big wrench. All through this, there’d be a radio blasting music, like a soundtrack to some crazy movie.

There was one guy who seemed above it all. He stayed to himself and was mostly quiet. He worked hard and always held up his end. At break time when we sat around at tables, joking and taunting each other, complaining about the work or talking sports, he sat at the end of the table flipping through the paper and sipping his coffee.

He wasn’t unfriendly. If you asked him if he saw the White Sox game, he’d answer and engage. But he didn’t join in when someone was being teased, or if there was a little debate about the upcoming mayoral race. If a few of us were going to jump in the car at lunch and grab something to go, he wasn’t going to come.

He simply showed up, worked hard and minded his own business. I was about sixteen at the time and this guy was maybe forty, and he became a role model for me. I was fascinated to see how he was never tempted to join in the shenanigans. He might smile and say, “Oh, no thanks,” or “Oh, I’ve got nothing to say about that,” if someone was making a run to the liquor store, or asking him what he thought about the President. He wasn’t going to be drawn in. So while you didn’t see him laughing and high-fiving guys, you also never saw him in some petty quarrel or having a  beef with someone, or saying, “Hey, did you hear what Joe said?”

It might be a stretch to say he was the Socrates of the factory floor, but he did display a certain amount of cool wisdom that I tried to learn from.  When you’re working in a factory that resembles Hell, you take your sages when you can find them. The thing I got from him was that at work, you don’t have to be a part of all the charades and drama. You don’t have to be part of the gossip or be in on the joke. If you’re good at what you do, you can let your work speak for itself.

Sometimes having that stoic demeanor can help, on or off the job.

– Michael Wilcox