When I gave up smoking, many years ago, it wasn't really the nicotine I missed. What I pined for was the smoking room at work, where all the renegades of the newsroom congregated to spread filthy rumours, slag off the management and bemoan the end of the golden age of news (translated: the age when you'd be doing this in the pub, not the smoking room). It took far longer to wean myself off that habit, not that I ever really did: bitching about the boss by email was fortunately invented shortly afterwards.
That same familiar feeling flooded back yesterday, going back to my old office for lunch with a friend who still works there. Bumping into a few nice ex-colleagues reminds me that the one thing I miss about office life is the people.
That's people both in the particular (the Guardian and Observer staff are an unusually nice bunch) but also the general. One of the great joys of freelance life is the absence of office politics, bruised egos and power games: but while I like not having to deal with it, I do miss gossiping about it. I miss the watercooler stuff: rumour, innuendo, the stuff of other people's lives.
These days, I rely heavily on Twitter for my virtual fag break/watercooler moment. Many of my old friends and colleagues now tweet, which helps, but as a bonus I also now get the rest of the world's office gossip too.
I waste a lot of time on social media, but perhaps it's not so much of a waste. We all need human interaction, but tend to assume that online socialising doesn't really count: that it's for cold-hearted geeks who can't deal with flesh and blood friendships.
Well maybe not, if this American study is right. It argues that using social media bumps up our levels of the hormone oxytocin (the 'bonding' hormone, which rises when you're with people you love and makes you feel happier) just as 'real' socialising does.
I'm dubious about the writer's claim to have got the same hormone spike from ten minutes on Twitter that a bridegroom got from his wedding: if true, I wouldn't bet on that marriage lasting. I'm not convinced we react the same way to words on a screen (or in a letter, or a phone call) even if we know the person they're from, as we do face to face.
But for the kind of casual office banter I miss, social media is not a bad substitute. Which means not actually having a boss is no longer a barrier to communal moaning about the boss: what a relief, eh?