How do you celebrate success in the office? Minor success that is, filling a difficult vacancy for example, or landing a new bit of business.
When things go well, how do you show your appreciation? One way is to say ‘well done’ to the relevant individual. Another is to send a congratulatory email. In some cases you might even buy them a drink. There is another option, of course. And that is to offer an energetic high-five. Naturally.
I say ‘offer’ a high-five, but this ghastly sign of jubilation is never actually ‘offered’, it is always forced. The high-fiver raises their palm, and you respond with a meaty slap (without thinking in most cases). To do anything else is gravely impolite. And this is what makes it so annoying. Everybody knows the high-five is mandatory. There is no point in pretending otherwise.
My other problem with the high-five is its inherently naff status. I grew up on the shabby streets of South London where the high-five was seen as an antiquated move; one for the oldies and the tragically unhip – the sad dads and kooky priests. As a result I have always considered the high-five a sign from another time – an alien, outmoded gesture.
The high-five is cringeworthy enough in the civilian world, but deploy it in the office and you magnify its crassness exponentially. Offer a colleague a high-five and you immediately shatter any crystalline cool you have accrued. My advice on the office high-five mirrors that of the ’80s anti-drug brigade: don’t do it! That said, in recent years the high-five has been partially rehabilitated. I have seen it earnestly deployed by a dizzyingly wide cross-section of the public (including a number of managerial types). That doesn’t alter the truth, however. The high-five is a clunky anachronism – the kind of move one employs in lieu of a personality.
As you can imagine, I bring this baggage to every high-five situation. In turn, I consider the process utterly violating. The last time I suffered such an assault was in our weekly department meeting. It was an inane gathering chaired by Gabby, our new HR director. As an aside I should say that, while she is perfectly lovely, I find her appointment unusual. She is from a hospitality background, and this is her first job in the City. Inevitably, I wonder if she is up to it. Our company is not for the meek. Indeed, with our oozing machismo and naked avarice, we are well known to be brutal operators – oceans away from the sunny land of cocktails and afternoon tea. Then again, maybe that’s the point. It was rumoured that Gabby had been brought in to brighten our company culture – to give us a little sparkle and fizz. We need a lift, apparently. I get it. Unfortunately, I can’t see it working out. We are just too selfish. It’s only been a matter of weeks and already her career is in the quicksand.
“Ok, team,” Gabby said, clapping her hands together. “Happy Friday!”
My colleague Jess smiled with her mouth alone. She sent me a nano-wink before returning Gabby’s good wishes. Esme, our intern turned HR administrator, brought out a tray of cakes. They were well crafted and, as it turns out, home-made.
Gabby said, “I thought we would start the meeting with a little treat. Please help yourselves.”
Esme presented the tray with what appeared to be genuine enthusiasm. She still had the intern’s glow, I noted; in her case I hoped it would last. Jess and I dug in. The cakes were embossed with tiny wafer depictions of Disney characters. As I glanced at the smiling cartoon faces I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness. Gabby was a good person, how long would it take them to destroy her?
We munched while Gabby reeled off a loose list of agenda points.
“But before we begin,” she said, “I’d just like to congratulate Marco. He did marvellous job with the occupational health project. He’s essentially streamlined the entire wellbeing piece. The Board are very happy.”
Jess nodded, her smirk mocking me without words.
“Thanks, Gabby,” I said. “You’re very kind.”
Esme beamed from behind her dark fringe. Gabby put down her cupcake and wiped her hands on a napkin. Before I could recoil she leaned forward and raised her arm.
“Great work, Marco!” She said, offering a high-five.
Thoughtlessly, I raised my own hand and slapped her sticky palm. Gabby pulled her arm back with an exuberant sweep – for a horrifying moment I thought we were going to repeat the action, but her arm fell to her side. The convivial beat had passed. Jess held her notebook over her mouth.
On reflection, I would say the office high-five is the most ludicrous, inappropriate and redundant gesture in the corporate world (yes, even worse than the office fist-bump). It is mortifying for all concerned, whether they realise it or not. I would go so far as to label it shame inducing. Awful. Still, I appreciate the sentiment; Gabby was only trying her best, it would have been unkind not to play along. And besides, the cupcakes were delicious.