Friday, December 31, 1999

the trouble with Hans

[Originally published on Saturday, April 17, 2021, 3:15 a.m.]

We'll call my American coworker Hans.  Hans may be well-intended, and he may be a hard worker, and he may be extremely smart and very good with computers, but he has a few problems—what the French would call défauts de caractère, i.e., character flaws.  Hans lived in Germany and speaks fluent German; he also didn't hesitate to tell me he has an IQ of 143.  (I nodded when I heard this and said nothing about my IQ, not wanting to be involved in that pissing contest.)  He's married to a professionally trained chef (she specializes in Korean and Japanese food, but she's also great with Western food), and he has a young daughter who's a bit past toddler age.  With a wife and daughter who love him, Hans is no one's idea of a bad guy.  He's actually a decent fellow—well-intended, as I said above.

But Hans is a talker.  He loves, loves, loves to talk.  I no longer initiate conversations with him because I know that a single remark or question will trigger a torrent of unwanted verbiage.  Hans will launch into lengthy, unsolicited disquisitions on subjects that hold zero interest for me:  bicycle gear ratios, the science of fermentation (Hans is both an avid cyclist and an avid home-brewer), and politics from a libertarian perspective.  I've made the mistake, on several occasions, of engaging Hans by interjecting my own insights and disagreements, but the results have never been a conversation:  Hans has no idea how to converse with people.  His sole mode of interaction is lecture.  He might politely stop to allow me to have my say, but the moment I'm done, it's back to the peroration.

It's hard to concentrate on my work with Hans always prattling in the background.  He doesn't pick up on the various hints that I'm utterly uninterested in what he has to say:  my lack of eye contact, my grunts and monosyllabic responses, my stony silence.  Hans is charmed by the sound of his own voice, and he's perfectly happy to blather obliviously to no one in particular.  I've tried telling Hans to pipe down, dial it back, let me work in peace.  To no avail.  Hans can't take a hint, nor does he respond to direct statements that it's hard to concentrate when he's going on and on and on.

The reason Hans likes to lecture leads me to another of his défauts de caractère:  Hans is arrogant.  Despite having a Korean wife, despite living in a country where social life is stratified and hierarchical, where respectful language is the currency that gets one through the day, despite not being able to speak much Korean, Hans is completely lacking in humility.  During his discourses, he'll make haughty pronouncements about Korean culture, politics, or life in general.  He'll needle and challenge me when he reviews textbook material I've written, then back off and insist he meant no offense when I bristle at his more impolitic utterances.  Hans is an ass-kisser to our boss, but to his coworkers, he alternates between solicitous and supercilious.  I've lived in South Korea for sixteen years, so I'm sensitive to the hierarchical nature of interpersonal interactions.  Hans assumes he's among fellow Americans, I guess, so he feels free to treat his coworkers as equals or as inferiors.  My prickliness when Hans gets out of line keeps him from going overboard, but left to his own devices, Hans would have no sense of boundaries.

And that's the main problem with Hans:  his lack of sense.  Koreans use the term nunchi (sounds like "noon chee") to denote perceptivity in the social sense:  understanding when it's time to shut up, for example, or sensing when someone is upset or deep in thought.  I'd been thinking this for the better part of a year:  Hans has no nunchi.  Today, astonishingly, my Korean coworker came up to me after Hans and the boss had left and said exactly that:  "Hans has no nunchi."  In my coworker's case, he was upset by Hans's constant use of vulgar language, a habit that doesn't bother me at all because I have a salty tongue myself (and, truth be told, so does our boss).  Friday afternoon, just as he was leaving, Hans said, "Right, I'm gonna get the fuck outta here."  To me, this was nothing, but as my Korean coworker—we'll call him Ewan—explained, he had asked Hans not to talk that way in front of him.  Now, Ewan's English isn't that great, so it's not hard to imagine that, when he made his request, he wasn't very clear.  But it's equally easy to imagine that Hans barely registered the request, which is why he felt free to announce he was getting the fuck out of here.  Ewan said to me, "In an office, Korean employees just don't talk that way."  I explained to Ewan that, in many American offices, especially if there are no women present, guys often default to raunchy, salty-tongued language.  American employees also tend to address each other as equals; there's much less hierarchical language unless the CEO happens to be standing there.  

So, I said to Ewan, there are cultural differences to keep in mind.  (Aside:  I didn't imply that all American offices are this way, with every guy swearing like a sailor.  There are certainly offices where the ambiance is buttoned down, and people practice a delicate verbal politesse.)  Ewan didn't look mollified, but when I suggested that he take the matter up with our boss or with Hans directly, he said that Hans's lack of nunchi wasn't a huge problem, and he (Ewan) would talk to Hans if the need arose.  Ewan is a quiet, artistic type; he's our in-house graphic designer and a long-time friend of our boss, brought on board last year.  He's a very tolerant fellow, so if we've reached a point where Hans is bothering Ewan so much that Ewan feels it's necessary to vent to me, well... things must be pretty bad.  I asked Ewan whether he'd like me to address the problem directly with Hans or the boss; Ewan demurred.  For now, all we can do is endure.  Talking to Hans hasn't worked, and the boss seems to like Hans a lot, probably because of all the ass-kissing.  I'm in a bit of a bind:  at this point, with Ewan not wanting me to say anything to the boss, it becomes difficult to approach the boss on my own behalf (because, after all, I have basically the same complaints that Ewan does).  Were I to complain independently, Ewan might find out and think I had violated his trust.  Oy gevalt.

Hans makes office life unnecessarily difficult.  He tries to be a nice guy; he'll praise the food I bring to the office, and he'll compliment some of the textbook material I've written.  He's not an evil character by any means.  But he really needs to dial the blah-blah back about 90%, and he could use several whale-sized doses of humility.  Hans apparently grew up with fourteen siblings; maybe that at least partly explains his behavior.  In a large, rowdy family, everything becomes a contest for attention or an opportunity to prove oneself.  Such an environment can be a breeding ground for insecurity, hence the need to wave one's intelligence rudely in other people's faces.  (I don't question that Hans is a smart guy; he obviously is, and we'd be hard-put to survive without his computer-related expertise.  But while he's smart in some ways, he's rather dumb in others, especially when it comes to reading people.)

I'm taking the view that Hans is a test sent from the heavens to see how patient we can be.  But if Ewan's patience has been strained to the point where he's venting privately to me about Hans, how long can I be expected to last before I blow a gasket?


John Mac said...

Well, that's quite a conundrum. Am office work setting like yours is supposed to be a professional environment. Why a smart guy like Hans doesn't know that seems bizarre. Perhaps he knows and just doesn't care.

Speaking as an old HR guy, if this complaint were brought to me, I'd call Hans into my office for a chat. I would reiterate that his co-workers have the right to expect a work environment that is conducive to accomplishing work objectives. His deviations into non-work-related rants disrupt that environment and are unacceptable. The foul language also has no place in a work setting. I'd tell him to give it a rest and save his non-work talk for after hours. If he wouldn't or couldn't adjust to those standards, I'd say that despite his skills he's not a good fit and he should seek other opportunities.

That's a speech your boss could and should give as well.

John from Daejeon said...

I'd invest in noise canceling headphones and bring it to his attention that they are "noise canceling" for a reason. The job comes first. This is especially important in crunch-time situations were concentration is of vital importance.