So Your Coworker Is Impossible. Does It Help To Know They’re A Virgo?
Star signs have become fodder for office conflict and team-building exercises. Can the zodiac survive such mundanity?
In my youth, I edited a weekly column written by an eccentric who I never met in person. One Monday, the column simply didn’t arrive. I emailed, I fretted, I followed up. I finally told my boss, who was blessedly apathetic. And two Mondays later, I got an explanation. “I had to take shrooms and go to Morocco for two weeks!” my new work nemesis wrote. “You’ll understand; we’re both Sagittarius.”
Yes, I’m a Sagittarius, but no, I did not understand. I was floored. I was as livid as any 22-year-old could be when she says aloud to herself “I am a professional, not a ‘Sagittarius,’ and you will treat me as such!” I liked psychedelics and vacations as much as the next gal, but I didn’t like excuses and I was iffy about astrology.
This was a decade ago. And looking back now, my reaction surprises me more than the columnist’s email. Astrology has spent the intervening years infiltrating every aspect of culture. And it’s moved from its natural habitats — crush-analysis and try-hard marketing — into the boring old workplace.
At a birthday party a few weeks ago, I listened patiently while a group of colleagues chatted about how their whole team was earth signs and wasn’t that so good. A friend who works for a creative design firm in Los Angeles told me that her office just had a Gemini party in June. A childhood friend who still lives in Washington, D.C., and has a very D.C. boyfriend (shadowy consulting job “embedded in a government team”) told me he had an astrology themed team-building activity. In classic D.C. fashion, he refused to divulge more. My friends are talking about zodiac-themed corporate mandatory fun, which in some ways communicates exactly how mundane astrology has become.
Lily, who moderates the popular Astrology Memes Reddit, says that in the past few years, she’s seen an upswing in people talking about astrology with a connection to work, especially when it comes to Mercury retrograde, a shared, celestial excuse for humdrum work hiccups. “Mercury rules over electronics, communication, organization… random mishaps like an email not going through, you’re being slammed at work, everything’s gone wrong, a file just went missing, the computer broke,” she says. “Mercury’s retrograding for you, but everyone’s going to have that same shared experience, which is kind of reassuring. We’re all in this together, you know?”
While I still remember my 22-year-old furious revulsion at seeing something so woo in the company email server, we’re bereft for non-woo language to talk about communication dynamics, conflict resolution, and personality types at work.
My partner’s co-worker, Canni, is perhaps the most fervent workplace astrology evangelist I know. She has an entire spreadsheet. As soon as her company (a market research group) gets a new hire, Canni messages them to ask for their zodiac sign. (“I’m nosy, because I’m a Gemini rising.”) It started in the early pandemic as a joke, but it became a very popular companywide initiative. “We all have to take a personality test when we’re hired. I swear they say the same thing as the astrology signs,” says Canni. “I’m convinced that salespeople attract a fire energy. I don’t think a Pisces or a Cancer could be in sales.”
Like Myers-Briggs or Enneagram personality types, astrological signs acknowledge people’s inherent differences without implying that some people’s differences need to be changed. You can’t change that you were born a Aquarius, even if you wanted to stop being so self-reliant and talented! While in the realm of dating, astrology sometimes seems like a way of rejecting people (if I had a dollar for every time a friend said to me that she had to stop sleeping with people who had Venus in Gemini, I would have one fantastic dollar), in the workplace it seems like a way to accept that we are in a vast, varied world of weirdos with vast, varied character traits.
Brenda Kissane, who is a therapist in Salem, Massachusetts, says that a good portion of her clients bring up astrology, often to talk about themselves and others in a way that allows for complexity of character, without shaming. “Like ‘Oh, I’m really anal about this because I’m a Capricorn.’ It offers a gentler reason for them being where they are or for [someone else] being where they are,” Brenda says.
“I think a lot of people who were raised in any sort of Abrahamic religion saw a good-bad binary. Astrology offers an assumption that people are good and flawed.”
My friend Louisa says that people in her office cite their astrology signs to let each other (and themselves) off the hook for their professional shortcomings. “Our head of postproduction deals with all the spreadsheets and technical things, and where all the drives are, and they will say, ‘I just want to clean up this spreadsheet; I’m a Virgo, apologies.’” Astrology, like other personality categorizing systems, Louisa says, “gives you language to understand that different types of people exist and no one should be forced to work the way you want or deem your value system correct.”
However, however: “I will just never be able to get past the fact that I just don’t believe where the stars were when I was born could actually influence me,” says Louisa. “I say that while feeling very Libra. But my scientific mind doesn’t understand.” Herein lies the catch, when it comes to using astrology to understand your co-workers: How can you evaluate people on the thing they have no control over? Astrological signs are not protected categories — you can’t get sued for, say, declining to hire any Virgo backup dancers for your world tour — but it’s not hard to imagine how bringing one’s personal astrological biases to work could be bad for collegial vibes.
But then, it’s perhaps our powerlessness over astrology that makes it so helpful when forgiving a co-worker’s quirks. Elodie, a friend who works for a production company in New York, puts it this way: “It’s like everything gets chalked up to being a Gemini. You know, Oh, that’s so Gemini of them, when they’re really just being annoying. You can explain it through astrology, or you explain it by being mean.”
And, for all their helpful ambiguity, archetypes will also be reductive. “It both allows for a more forgiving, more understanding read of someone else, but also kind of whitewashes the nuance of someone’s personality,” she says.
“I don’t actually want to know anything about my co-workers in an astrological way. Just tell me when the company holidays are.”
True, I’ve always found astrology most useful when someone is using it to describe themselves, taking their cookie-cutter sun sign and cobbling it together with bits of their rising and moon signs. They will say something like, “Well, I’m a Pisces but I have a lot of Leo in my chart, which is why I’m such an extrovert and I have great hair.” First, astrology has so many components you can pick and choose what speaks to you, as you should. Second, when people describe their star signs, they reveal so much about what they think of their internal landscape. Astrology is a system we have no control over. The workplace is also a system over which most of us have less control than we wish. Astrology allows us to describe ourselves the way we wish to be seen, with the cover that this was all fated by planetary momentum.
Elodie says their company’s resident astrologist (“who’s really just some dude who’s into astrology”) took over their internal newsletter for several months and wrote all about how much their colleagues embodied Aquarius season and explained company changes in the parlance of the transition from Cancer season to Leo season. “I don’t actually want to know anything about my co-workers in that way. Just tell me when the company holidays are.”
If workplace astrology in the workplace has a whiff of forced fun and false intimacy about it, that might be because, dare we say, it’s also passé. An acquaintance who works in marketing described an “obnoxious” rival firm that “lists their star signs on their staff website. We always make fun of it.” When we tried to look it up together, he saw that the star sign mentioned in the bios had been removed. “I guess they recognized the shift that it’s cheesy and not cool.”
Now that astrology has seeped over so many aspects of life, it’s become more of a shared way to talk about the intricacies of our personalities. It’s no longer the niche of crystal-worshipers or actively dating queers, but instead, astrology is ordinary enough to be HR-approved. “I recognize that even though I think it’s dumb,” says Elodie, “it really is like a rallying cry for a lot of people I work with. It just allows for endless combinations of jokes and easy familiarity. It’s a shared language and maybe that’s enough if you’re trying to just work together every day.”