Category Archives: Work

Dealing with the office psycho

The other day, former co-worker asked me for advice on how to deal with a difficult situation at work. Apparently I am regarded as “wise” in some circles. As this person was still stuck in the worst workplace I have ever suffered through, I thought the problem would be pretty dramatic. As it turns out, it didn’t sound very dramatic. In fact, what he really wanted was confirmation that something was going on at all because he wasn’t sure.

He described someone else in his project team that he thought was taking credit for for all of his work. They had clearly delineated areas of responsibility yet he always felt like this person was spending too much time looking aver his shoulder rather than doing their own work. She would drill him with a lot of questions so she had an effective working knowledge of what he was doing. None of this was necessary for her to do her own work.

Then she started answering questions from management that were directed at him. She would go so far as to talk over him if he managed to start his answer first which made him so uncomfortable he stopped talking. After this had been going on for a while he discovered she was sending “update” emails to management detailing his work but phrased to suggest it was all coming from her. Needless to say, he wasn’t being sent copies of these email communications.

“I feel like she’s out to get me, that she’s going out of her way to screw me over. But that’s crazy, why would she do that?”

The answer’s actually quite simple: she’s a psycho. Coming out and describing someone as a psychopath tends to get a laugh in response: “Yeah, she’s crazy all right.” But it isn’t a joke. This type of behaviour is a perfect example of psychopathic/sociopathic behaviour. The diagnosis of a psychopath in the workplace is often not taken seriously because the term is coloured by preconception. People often confuse it with “psychotic”. And those who know the difference are often influenced by popular fiction like “Silence of the Lambs”.

What the office psychopath and Hannibal Lecter have in common is a complete lack what’s commonly known as a conscience. They are perfectly aware of the concepts of right it wrong, they simply don’t care. They don’t feel remorse because anyone hurt by their actions is unimportant. The difference between a serial killer and an office psycho is what they want from you.

In case you think you think talking about psychopaths in the workplace is overblown, statistically, it’s almost certain you work with or regularly interact with a psychopath. Most studies suggest that between 3% and 5% of the population suffer from the milder condition known as anti-social personality disorder and 1% of the population are psychopaths. In other words, 1 in 25 people you meet is a dick (you hadn’t noticed?) and 1 in 100 is dangerous (a smaller number of these are violent predator types).

The likelihood of running into these characters at work is higher than this simply because of the number of companies who seem to actively encourage this sort of thing. How many managers would react positively to someone described as “a real results person, nothing gets in their way. They can charm anyone and won’t hesitate to go after goals other people say are impossible. Anyone who’s not on the team better get out of the way because this guy will crush them.”

This is not saying all high achievers are psychopaths, in fact, most psychopaths can’t maintain positive results for an extended period of time. This is mostly because they achieve their goals in an incredibly destructive way. They won’t hesitate to cause major damage to everyone and everyone around them. Because they simply don’t care.

The three main traits usually ascribed to psychopathic/sociopathic personality types are they are very egocentric, they have no empathy for others and they are incapable of feeling remorse or guilt. On the surface, this would appear to make them obvious monsters that could never fool anyone. The scary thing is that many of them are more than capable of faking all the human characteristics they lack in reality. The smarmiest person in the office, the one who easily makes friends and establishes trust can easily be the one who has no real concern for anyone around them.

So how to deal with an office psycho? The first and simplest rule is to get the hell away from them. These people will not hesitate to make your life miserable. They will destroy your career, your finance and your health. Don’t try to appeal to their better nature. They don’t have one.

Getting away from them means up to and including getting a different job. If you’re working in an environment that encourages and rewards sociopathic behaviour, changing jobs is by far your best option. Seeing as how there are usually people who say changing jobs isn’t viable for them, I’ll provide a few more coping strategies. Seriously though, there are times when you need to bite the bullet and change jobs. There are very few jobs worth the long term emotional and even physical damage a workplace psycho will do to you.

One of the common strategies a workplace psycho will use is to isolate you. You absolutely must not allow this to happen. They want other people to doubt you and they want you to doubt yourself. The best remedy for this is frequent communication with everyone but your tormentor. In the case of my friend, the psycho went out of her way to block his attempts at communication. I suggested he deal with it as follows:

Send daily email updates on progress to your manager. The psycho was not informed of these because they were nothing to do with her. My friend did not report to her and she was not directly involved in his work. The manager doesn’t even have to read these unless somewhere down the line there’s a clash with the psycho. Then you have a timeline of activity that should protect you from their attacks.

Seeing as the psycho had the habit of talking over him and answering “for him” when his manager asked questions, I advised him to find times when she wasn’t around to talk to his manager. These discussions don’t have to be formal meetings although there are times when meetings help. Something as simple as having lunch at a different time to the psycho and taking the opportunity to talk while she’s at lunch can work wonders.

If you are the target of the office psycho, they will go out of their way to make it look like you contribute nothing. The last thing you want is at some critical point for the boss to go “That’s true, what does that guy ever do?” Regular chats (whether informal or formal) will help keep the boss appraised of exactly what you do.

Another important point is to give the psycho as little information as possible. This goes for both your work and your private life. If their plan is to steal credit for your work, obviously you can make it harder for them by not providing them with the required information. If you’re going to starve them of information it’s vitally important that you keep other informed of what work you are doing (both your manager and trusted peers). That way if the psycho complains that you’re withholding information others can say that you’ve kept them fully informed.

If you’re put on the spot as to why you haven’t provided the same information to the psycho, be direct but not defensive. It isn’t their job and they had no need to know.

Don’t underestimate the importance of keeping your private live private, either. These office psychopaths can be especially skilled at appearing friendly. They are frequently consummate actors and in fact they often appear to be the most emotional person in the office. But it’s all an act. The don’t want to hear personal details out of genuine concern for you or anyone else, they want to use this information as a weapon against you. Don’t give them that opportunity.

But one of the most important things you can do when dealing with an office psycho is to recognise them for what they are. Most of us are basically decent people and we tend to assume other people are as well. Psychopaths and sociopaths use that to their advantage. What we regard as a conscience, they regard as a weakness to be exploited. If you’re like my friend you’ll make the mistake of letting them get away with it for ages before doing anything about their behaviour.

These people are not just jerks and most studies suggest more than not being interested in changing, it isn’t actually possible to change their behaviour – their brains are different. One way to tell if a troublesome person is actually a psychopath is their propensity for lying. And I’m not talking about “No, that outfit doesn’t make you look fat” type of lies.

If someone can blatantly lie to your face and not back down even when you expose their lie, that’s a bad sign. If they can do it twice, they’re very likely to be a psychopathic personality. If they do it three times – hide the sharp knives.

Here’s a little more fun reading for you:

This Fast Company article is one of the best pieces I found while researching this post.
Bob Sutton has a simple suggestion for companies wanting to keep psychos out – implement a “No Asshole” rule.  No matter how good someone seems to be, don’t hire them if they’re an asshole.

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Elevator etiquette

I’m back working in a multi-storey office building for the first time in years which means having to use the elevator multiple times a day.  I have to tell you, I’m astounded how many people simply don’t know how to use a lift effectively.  Because I like to help (really because I like to vent at people who piss me off) I thought I’d compile a handy guide to proper elevator use.

1. Getting into an elevator: There are basically two rules when it comes to entering an elevator.

  • Wait for people to get out before you get in
  • Don’t take all bloody day to get in

For people who don’t place any value on courtesy, letting people get out first still seems like basic common sense to me. There’s more room to manoeuvre outside the elevator than inside. If you push your way in before people get out they’ll have to shove past you. It’s easier all round to just step aside for a second to see if anyone’s trying to get out

The second part can be a delicate balancing act.  If you stand around for too long the doors will close.  If you don’t wait long enough you crash into people coming out.  Some exercise of the brain is required here.  I hate getting some slug-like entity between me and the elevator who does nothing because they’re too fucking stupid to figure out what’s going on.  Then the doors close and I’m left to ruminate on why I didn’t shoulder charge the obvious moron out of my way.

Here’s a tip for the slow learners: try putting your hand on the door frame to hold the door.  You can do this while standing out of the way of anyone exiting.  And on 99% of elevators this will stop the door from shutting before you can get on.  If everyone stands around waiting for someone else to get on first, that isn’t “polite”.  It’s fucking stupid!

2. While in the elevator: Don’t listen to people who say you should never talk in an elevator.  It’s a fun experiment often given to first year Psychology students to get into an elevator, face the “wrong” way and try to engage people in animated conversations.  99% of people will cringe horribly/amusingly when you do this.  But grownups should be able to maintain decorous conversations in an elevator that also contains strangers.

But for the love of the little baby Jeebus, DON’T have loud conversations on a mobile phone.  Either hang up before you get in or continue your conversation at a conversational volume.  If the person at the other end can’t hear you tell them you’re in an elevator and you’ll call them back.  Shouting at a person who isn’t there is fucking obnoxious behaviour to the people who ARE there.  It will be your fault if someone decides to see if your phone will double as a rectal thermometer.

Also, when you get in, stand somewhere that makes sense in relation to where you’re getting out.  If you’re likely to be getting out the first time the elevator stops, don’t stand right at the back just because you’re the first to get in.  Stand to the side near the door but out of the way so other people can come in.  That way you can get out again with a minimum of shoving.

Likewise, if you going to be the last one out DON’T STAND IN THE FUCKING DOORWAY!  The only time you should ever stand right where the doors open is if there’s no other choice.  Or maybe if you’re getting off on the next floor (but if that’s the case, why don’t you take the stairs you lazy bastard?)

And if you are in the doorway because there was no choice, when the door opens and it isn’t your floor, get out of the fucking way!  Step out of the goddam lift and hold the door.  Then get back in when people have exited.  Don’t force people to wriggle past you.  Pull that shit with me and you’re likely to get an “accidental” kick to the back of the knee.

So please, people, I’m begging you.  There are precious few things that separate us from the beasts.  Knowing how to interact with random people without causing trauma is one of them.  If you don’t have the mental capacity to navigate an elevator without making other people want to punch your lights out, maybe you’re not enough of a grown up to be part of the workforce.  Stay in your home with your 24 cats and leave the rest of us alone.

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More job interview shenanigans

Well, it looks like I might be starting a new job on Monday.  I’ve been going through interviews and now there are two contenders who seem to want me so it’s down to who makes the best offer.

I don’t know if I’m getting mellower (wouldn’t that be a terrible thing?) but the questions seem to be getting less stupid.  Astute readers will know that my pet hate is being asked “what are your weaknesses?”  Why do morons who ask that question think I’m going to honestly tell them something bad about myself?

Anyway, in this round of interviews one highlight stands out.  The interview team were following a smart path as far as I’m concerned.  After establishing my basic competence they spent more time focusing on whether they could stand to be around me rather than obsessing over technical details.

This is a small startup so one technical genius who happens to be an obnoxious fuck-up could destroy the company.  Whereas a decent, intelligent human doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to make a positive contribution to the company.  So we’ve progressed to a fairly relaxed, chatty stage of the interview when the CEO of the startup leans over to me and says (I swear I’m not making this up):

“Tell me about a time when you really fucked something up.”

I like these guys.

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Back in the job market

I’m testing the waters in the job market again.  I won’t be starting another contract until at least December but I’ll probably need to start lining up interviews soon.  I checked the main job website and the market looks healthy.  It seems as though about 60 contract positions for my line of work are being advertised each week.

I say “seems to be” because although that’s the number that pops up when I search, it isn’t strictly accurate.  Some of them are being re-advertised so they aren’t all new.  Some are being advertised by more than one agency so the numbers are a bit deceptive.  And then there’s the morons who advertise permanent roles under the contract listings.

This really bugs me.  When I’ve questioned agencies about this in the past they’ve said they wanted to reach the widest range of candidates possible.  Yeah, including the ones who aren’t even slightly interested.  That makes sense.  I decided to call one of the agencies and share my displeasure with them:

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Pointless Interview Questions

The job market is a fun place. Well, it’s fun for me at the moment, mostly because I’m in no rush to start another contract.  This makes me very relaxed during interviews which tends to result in me coming across better.  It also frees me up to decide I don’t want a particular job.  I’m not desperate for money so I’m content to wait for the right opportunity rather than grab the first thing that comes along.

It also gives me a bit of freedom in my responses when I think the interviewer is asking stupid questions.  I don’t want to burn any bridges so I’m not actually rude.  I never actually come out and say I think the interviewer is asking stupid questions but it’s fairly easy to turn things around so they are in the position of justifying why they’re asking questions that are so, well… stupid.

For instance, there was the putz I had to see this week who thought he was being really clever.  It seems as though someone gave him the book of Microsoft interview questions and he was eager to show off his new “knowledge”.  This style of interviewing gives you abstract questions that have no relationship whatsoever to the work you’ll be doing.  Or to the real world.

Proponents say they’re trying to see how creatively you can think.  Normal humans say it’s a waste of time.  In my case, the interview went a little like this:

Annoying Recruiter: How would you move Mount Fuji 1/2 a kilometre to the South?

ME: Why would I do that?

AR: Uhhhh, it’s a project you’ve been assigned.

ME: As part of my work I’ve been asked to move Mount Fuji?

AR: Yes, so how would you do it?

ME: How could that possibly benefit the business?

AR: What?

ME: As an analyst, my first reaction is the project would be prohibitively expensive and take forever to complete.  The first thing I’d want is to see a business case that showed how this would benefit the business.

AR: But how would you do it?

ME: That isn’t the important question.  What you need to be asking is why would you do it?

AR: I just want to know how you’d do it.

ME: But if you can’t tell me why it should be done, that tells me there’s a problem.  As an analyst, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I let the project go forward without answering that question.

AR: I’m trying to get an idea of how you’d approach the problem.

ME: I’m telling you how I’d approach it: I’d try to find out why someone wanted to do this.  Seriously, even suggesting such an outlandish project tells me that things are seriously out of whack.

AR: No, this isn’t a real work project. I gave you an unusual example to see how you’d approach a problem that you wouldn’t face in your day to day work.

ME: So what you’re saying is the way you’re planning to work out if I’d be any good at this job by asking me questions that have nothing to do with the job and could never be of any value to the job?

AR: Uhh, yes.

ME: It never occurred to you to ask me questions related to actual issues I’m likely to face in this job?

AR: Well, this is a creative exercise.

ME: So you’re sticking with the plan that finding out how I deal with something useless is more valuable than finding out how I’d deal with something that actually matters to the business?

AR: Well that isn’t really the point…

ME: Is it hard to get your job? (extended silence) Wait I’ve got a better question: If I took this job, would I ever have to see you again?  Because I gotta tell you, that would have a pretty big influence on my decision.

I’d like to point out I’m not a cruel man.  It was never my intention to reduce the interviewer to tears.  But I think with the right therapy, he’ll come through this a stronger person.

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Ways you can tell I’m leaving my job #3

I’m more likely to tell people what I think of them.
You may not believe this but at work I am generally of a sunny disposition (I’ve mentioned before that I’m a whistler).  But there’s always some jerk who thinks it’s their job to pass judgement on others.  They are fools because this is, of course, my job. 

So I’m having a conversation with a cow-orker today when, for no reason I can fathom, he says:

“You’re in a way better mood than usual.  What’s up with that?”

Personally, I thought I was in my normal mood.  Maybe this fuckwit is the type who’s so terrified of running out of things to say he’ll fill momentary silences with anything, no matter how mindless, rather than shutting the fuck up for five seconds.  Maybe he suffers from such extreme self-loathing he couldn’t work out why I wasn’t punching him in the face.  Like his mother does.

Usually, I’d ignore mindless shit like this but, hey, I’m leaving.  So I said:

“Well, talking to you is bringing down my mood by the second so I should be where you expect real soon.”

Surprisingly enough, the conversation sort of died after that.

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Ways you can tell I’m leaving my current job #1

In a meeting discussing some technical issues about database integration one cow-orker said to another cow-orker:

“You’re trying to force things into the back end.”

I couldn’t resist and responded:

“That’s what your mum said,” and burst out laughing.

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Memo to a filthy beast

I’m really glad nobody at work reads my blog.  Even if I managed to avoid getting fired for it, nobody would talk to me for fear of appearing in a blog post.  If my blog was circulated around work, I’d particularly like it to reach a particular individual whose identity I don’t know.  I’ll explain in the form of an office memo.

MEMO TO: The filthy fucking beast who had a shit explosion in the middle toilet cubicle

FROM: All the decent humans in this workplace

RE: Well, the “TO” line pretty much says it all

BODY:

Hello.  You disgusting fucking animal.  So it seems you have a case of explosive diarrhoea.  I don’t hold this against you.  We’ve all had unhappy visits to Arse Explosion Town.  But why in the hell would you not clean up after yourself?

I’m not saying you have to clean every skid mark off the bowl every time.  But is it too much to ask that you don’t leave liquefied shit sprayed all over the place?  It is simply impossible that you did not realise this had happened.  I am not a forensic specialist but the spectacular spray patterns speak to a particularly forceful bowel eruption.  There’s no way you didn’t feel it.

It is among the less pleasant experiences a human can suffer to walk into a toilet cubicle and be confronted with such a mess.  It’s bad enough when this shit happens in a public toilet but at work?  We’re supposed to be professionals.  We’re supposed to be adults.  We’re supposed to be fucking human ferchrissake!  Last I looked there were no shit-slinging howler monkeys employed here.

I’m guessing that you saw the unholy fecal fresco you created and thought “That’s gross, I’m not going near that.”  Poor, sensitive you.  How the fuck do you think I felt when it confronted me?  The level of contempt this action displays for your co-workers leads me to suspect you’re the same prick that stole my piece of chocolate cake out of the fridge. 

I can almost see how that played out too.  You saw it and wondered whose it was.  You may have even asked a few people if it was theirs.  When nobody claimed it you decided you would eat it.  Because you didn’t know who owned it.  Well you knew fucking well you didn’t own the fucking cake didn’t you, you thieving fucking bastard!

Anyway, in summary: you’re a disgusting vile animal.  I hope you stay anonymous because I’m not sure I could resist punching you in the face if I knew who you were.  Oh, and I cleaned you mess up.  You know how?  There was a scrubbing brush, right there in the cubicle.  You might try learning how to use one someday.

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Give me a straight answer!

In case you thought I’d gone all soft from getting such good news about the New York deal:

I CAN’T FUCKING STAND IT WHEN PEOPLE WON’T GIVE A STRAIGHT ANSWER!

The same shit happens in personal relationships and work relationships.  You ask a straight question and you don’t get a straight answer.  Or you ask a simple yes/no question and get a vague answer that isn’t yes or no.  Or you ask an open question and the person answers with a yes or no that doesn’t make any sense.  Sometimes it seems clear the person is doing it deliberately to be evasive.  Sometimes they don’t seem to realise they’re doing it.  And sometimes they do it because they don’t give a shit about you.

Politicians are, of course, past masters at this.  That’s because most of them are pathological liars who are scared to commit to anything.  They’re driven by polls rather than any actual commitment to an ideal.  And I’m NOT talking about politicians who change their minds.  I get so angry when somebody who’s actually willing to think about an issue is called a “flip-flopper”.

Yeah, being willing to consider that circumstances can change is a serious fucking character flaw.  The idiocy of associating intelligence and open-mindedness with weakness was best summed up by Steven Colbert when he ripped George W Bush apart at the 2006 Whitehouse Correspondent’s Dinner.  His description of W:

“The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday, that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change, this man’s beliefs never will.”

That sums him up perfectly.  That sort of attitude isn’t resolute and clear.  It’s fucking stupid.

I actually wandered a bit of the topic there.  What got me in this mood was a little “issue” at work recently.  Part of my job is defining the requirements for the project we’re working on.  I don’t agree with the attitude some people have about requirements being carved in stone, but once they get signed off you need a pretty clear reason to change them. 

Changing requirements doesn’t necessarily mean a project is in trouble.  In fact it’s often a positive sign – people are thinking and finding ways to improve things.  But when someone won’t give straight answers about their motivations it drives me fucking crazy.  Here’s a little discussion that happened at work recently.  I’ve broken it up into what “he” said, what I said and in brackets what I was saying in my head.

HE SAID: We need the integration function between the systems to bring across these extra fields

I SAID: Where did this requirement come from?

(Hey, I did this one, what are you trying to pin on me?)

HE: There are some fields that will be needed in this report that the integration

I: What are you basing that on?

(Seriously, what the fuck are you up to?)

HE: We don’t want to have to add these fields manually, that’s too much extra work.

I: But why is this coming up now?  Everyone involved agreed we had everything we needed covered.

(Don’t fuck with me over this, I’m not in the mood.)

HE: Looking at this report, I see some fields that are missing.

I: But what was the source of this requirement?

(Why won’t you answer the question I’m asking?)

HE:  There are these fields…

I: What conversation with what person triggered this?  What makes you bring this up now?  I went over these requirements in fine detail with everyone involved and what you are saying was never mentioned as a requirement.

(I mean it, six fucking meetings with 20 fucking people.  Don’t try and make it look like I’m not doing my job.)

HE:  We’re going to need to add these fields…

I: Shut the fuck up!  You’re making this shit up!  I’m not taking your crap, I’m out of here.

(Maybe we should schedule another meeting with all the stakeholders to work out what’s really required.)

The moral of this story is: Don’t have conversations in your head while you’re talking to someone because you might get them confused.

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Project Management on the Titanic

One good way to highlight how stupid “accepted wisdom” can be is to transpose the situation into a different setting and see how ridiculous it looks.  This week I’ve been imagining software project management being applied on the Titanic.  Because the project I’m working on hit a big fucking iceberg.

The basic situation is the company I work for has bought a big software package.  The vendor submitted a fixed price tender to supply, configure and install the software.  Fixed price contacts sound great in concept but anyone who’s dealt with them knows their shortcoming. 

Whether you’re building a house or installing software, there are always things you didn’t allow for.  You, the buyer, want these things when they come to light and the supplier says “Sure, you can have that but it’s a change to the contract which means I have to charge you more.”

One of three things happens now:

  1. You don’t get what you want so you’re dissatisfied with the end result
  2. You pay more so you’re dissatisfied with the final cost
  3. You have a big fight over whether or not this is a change and the relationship becomes really adversarial which is no fun for anybody

We seem to be stuck with outcome 3.  And as the Business Analyst I’m stuck in the middle of the business Project Manager and the vendor Project Manager.  I’ve been imagining the scenario playing out on the Titanic as follows:

ME: Iceberg, dead ahead!

Business PM: Quick, get us past the iceberg.

Vendor PM: There was no mention of icebergs in the contract.

BPM: So what? There’s an iceberg there now, we have to deal with it.

VPM: We can deal with the iceberg but we’ll have to charge you for a change request.

BPM: But the owners won’t agree to pay any more.  They wanted you to steer the ship for a fixed price.

VPM: But there were no icebergs in the original plan.  It’s going to take time to deal with it and we’ll have to charge you for it.  You’ll have to document what you want us to do.

BPM: I can’t believe you’ve never encountered icebergs in any of your other ships, what did you do in similar situations?

VPM: I talked to the owner and he was clear he wanted the ship to reach its destination as quickly as possible so we configured the navigation differently.  Don’t you have any existing processes for dealing with icebergs?

ME: Kind of.  People just do whatever’s required to deal with situations as the come up.  There are some guidelines like “don’t hit icebergs” but there’s no detailed instructions. That’s why we hired you, for your expertise.

VPM: We can come up with a solution but we’ll have to bill you for the time.

BPM: There are other cruise lines thinking of installing similar systems on their ships but they’re waiting to see how things turn out for us.  Isn’t it more important to your future to deliver a good result to us than to screw every possible dollar out of us here and now?

VPM: But I can’t keep ordering my engineers to do more and more work when we signed on for a fixed price.  I have no more money to pay them.

ME: Oh shit!  The iceberg just ripped a big hole in the hull.  We’re sinking.

BPM: You have to help us now or we’ll all sink together.

VPM: We have to agree on a change request first.

ME: You two go off and have a meeting then, leave me out of it.

BPM: What are you going to do?

ME: I’m going to throw myself into the icy water and hope I die quickly.

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