The officemate relationship is the arranged marriage of the workplace. As a junior associate at a big New York law firm, you will probably share an office with someone preordained for you by HR. Because they sit literally an arms-length away from you and because you will both sit there for most of your waking hours, you will see this person more than any other person in your life. Like all arranged marriages, sometimes it goes smashingly and you have a best friend for life; other times, it makes your life that much worse every single day.
My first officemate was pretty good, as they go. We worked together on my first deal, so he taught me how to do my time-sheets, utilize legal assistants, navigate first-year M&A tasks, and, most importantly, after an entire Sunday of frantic deal-closing work, how to order food from Seamless. In good times, when work was slow, he'd look over and say, "HAN. Entertain me. What you got?" We visited zombocom and watched viral internet videos. We called up other associates to banter. In bad times, we covered for each other. When I had worked a few nights in a row and just HAD to take a nap before my body shut down, I'd give him a heads up, "Hey, if anyone comes looking for me, I'm in a meeting." Then I'd curl up under my desk, set my blackberry to vibrate, drape my suit jacket over my head, and try to catch a few winks.
So in this way we rolled with the ups and downs, sometimes literally. In 2011 when an earthquake hit NYC, my officemate and I appeared to moonbounce around our 46th floor office. It was only a few seconds, but it felt like forever. Afterwards, we stared at each other mouths agape and asked at the same time, "What the hell was that???"
Because of the close proximity, you'd know things about your officemate that no one else did. You would know what they eat for lunch and dinner, how often they go to the bathroom, how often their girlfriend calls and whether she was usually in a good or bad mood, how they talk to difficult clients on the phone, and how they deal with work and life generally. Once a friend was walking by his officemate's desk and happened to see her googling "unexpected pregnancy." She took a leave of absence shortly thereafter.
My officemate certainly had dirt on me. Just prior to starting the job, my 5-year long relationship ended, a demise which included a broken engagement. After the breakup, I moved into a dark, noisy, tunnel of an apartment, started an all-consuming job, and decided that I wanted to be a musician after all but it was probably too late. It was one of the darkest, loneliest times in my life. If you've ever moved by yourself and then, surrounded by your worldly possessions in beat-up cardboard boxes, had to rebuild an IKEA bed frame before you can sleep, you know that every misaligned pre-drilled hole feels like a cruel joke by the universe. In those days, I would sometimes cry quietly at my desk. When it became noticeable, my officemate would ask gingerly, "Yo.... You okay over there?" and I'd answer, "Yeah," and clear my throat. "I'm fine," I'd say, leaning closer to my computer to see whether that was indeed an errant comma or a figment of my tear-blurred eyes.
The code of officemate-dom was that you stayed out of each other's lives, but could gossip about it if it was remotely entertaining. I had a subsequent officemate who was dating a very pretty legal assistant, and I made a mental note of whether she was still stopping by for no good reason, just in case anyone asked. Another thing about this officemate was that he usually talked in a normal voice but once he got a phone call would switch to bellowing, whether on speakerphone or not. The moment he answered his calls, my secretary (who didn't even sit right outside our office) would instant message me, "OMG. How are you not deaf??"
Idiosyncrasies aside, conflicts between officemates were usually kept under control, because you really did have to get along. But there were some tense times. Once, I had just printed out a document of maybe 200-300 pages - one common junior associate task was to do a final review of a massive document in a short period of time before it was sent out, say to another team of lawyers or submitted to the SEC. As a corporate lawyer, you live or die by your organizational skills, and since I am also somewhat OCD, I started banging the stack of papers on all sides against my desk to neaten it into a pile. Bang bang bang! on one side of the stack. Bang bang bang! on another. I did all four sides and then went through it again just to make sure it was all aligned. Finally my officemate, who was trying to concentrate, looked over and howled, "Enough with the violence! Geez. Enough, Genghis! Genghis Han!!"
And a nickname was born.
A nickname is, ultimately, a souvenir from a period of your life, is it not? Whether it's a pet name from your parents that sticks even after you have kids of your own, or a college name that indicates some grand victory or magnificent stupidity in your past, names represent an era in our lives and recall the people who gave them to us.
I've kept the Genghis moniker because it represents many things: a ruthless efficiency, a will to triumph over the seemingly impossible, and an office culture where one of the best things about the job was the people around you. We have since all moved on to different endeavors, but every time someone calls me Genghis, I think back fondly to my officemates and those years that helped make me who I am today.