The Washington run-in

Washington may be a city of big ideas, but its size is greatly reduced when it comes to the daily rhythms of life. The people who craft sweeping legislation or run national campaigns often work long hours and in tight quarters. Yet their personal space can be just as constricting. For Capitol Hill staffers — whose colleagues number in the thousands, and many of whom live near each other in one of a few clusters around the city — the chance out-of-work run-in with a professional acquaintance can occur all too often. And be — yup — awkward.

It’s one thing to hear inspirational words from a co-worker in a staff meeting, but it’s something else entirely to see her in sweatpants and a ponytail at the gym the next morning.

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Consider this, from a House GOP aide:

“I once saw a Hill colleague smooching face with a guy in a bar,” the staffer said. “After the pair had come up for air, I walked over to say hello. My colleague couldn’t have had less interest in talking to me that night. I wished her a happy evening and went on my way. Glad to know my being there didn’t stop her.”

In a similar scenario, a House Democratic staffer had a surprise encounter with a colleague that initially felt uncomfortable but ended up a bonding experience.

The staffer and his girlfriend set out for a pastime they had grown to like: heading to a local movie theater, but stopping by a nearby burrito joint first to smuggle in some food for the film.

Upon approaching the burrito line, the staffer — who had recently started an entry-level job on Capitol Hill — looked up and saw one of his office superiors with a companion.

“It was our first out-of-office experience, but we chit-chatted through the awkwardness,” he said.

The staffer and his girlfriend bought their burritos and thought they were in the clear — until they entered the packed movie theater. They shimmied through aisles and climbed over laps to find one of the few remaining pairs of seats together. After sitting down, they got out their burritos and glanced over at their seatmates, only to see … his co-worker and companion sitting next to them, likewise enjoying their burritos.

There are also the obvious spots that congressional staffers with an aversion to these run-ins should naturally avoid.

“Lots of staffers work out at Results,” said one Senate Democratic staffer, referring to the Capitol Hill gym, “which is always demeaning to anyone trying to get in shape.”

It takes a certain set of circumstances for these kinds of run-ins to take place regularly, according to Katherine Stovel, a sociology professor at the University of Washington. They are common when “social networks are large and people spend time in geographically concentrated areas,” she wrote in an e-mail.

“In small towns people ‘run into’ one another all the time, but they aren’t likely to view this as surprising, since they know such a high fraction of other residents,” she wrote. “It only strikes us as surprising when there are lots of other people around who we don’t recognize.”

Stovel hypothesized that government and politics professionals in Washington have larger-than-average acquaintance networks due to the nature of their work; what’s more, these people live in an area that is “pretty circumscribed geographically and commercially.”

George Washington University sociologist Gregory D. Squires agreed, saying he would guess that “there’s a much closer spatial connection for people who work and live on Capitol Hill than in almost any other industry.”

So anyone else looking to smuggle a burrito into a movie theater should be prepared to do it within plain sight of a colleague.

It was “a true bonding experience,” the staffer said.